x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Footage of Betancourt rescue released

A video showing Ingrid Betancourt's rescue from Farc rebels has been released by the Colombian military.

BOGOTA // Colombia's military has shown for the first time a video detailing a daring rescue operation that set free 15 rebel-held hostages, including Ingrid Betancourt, a former Colombian presidential candidate. The images, unveiled on Friday, showed the captives angry and resigned at having their hands bound, and then minutes later sobbing with jubilation aboard a helicopter upon discovering they had been freed. The video of rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, benignly handing over 15 hostages to disguised Colombian commandos was made public to counter questions about the military's dramatic and bloodless coup, the defence minister, Juan Manuel Santos, said. "This is absolutely false," Mr Santos told reporters, when asked about reports that US$20 million dollars (Dh74m) had been paid as ransom, and that it was all arranged in advance with a rebel in charge of the hostages. The government does offer rewards for information leading to the arrest of Farc leaders, but in this case, Mr Santos said: "Not a cent has been paid." Mr Santos said a US surveillance plane was overhead monitoring the mission. He denied reports in international media that Israel was involved in the operation, adding that it was "100 per cent Colombian. Not a single foreigner participated." The 15 hostages, including Ms Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen, and three US defence contractors, were rescued on Wednesday after Colombian soldiers disguised as rebels arrived at a Farc jungle hideout and tricked the guerrillas into handing them over, ostensibly to be transferred to another Farc site. The Colombian military intelligence agents flew to the jungle aboard a white helicopter, staging a mock humanitarian mission that rebels were told would ferry their hostages to another camp for talks on a prisoner swap. The would-be envoys had honed their accents in acting lessons: Italian, Arab, Caribbean Spanish, and Australian English - "identical to Crocodile Dundee", Mr Santos said. He said Wednesday's elaborate ruse intentionally mimicked two hostage handovers brokered by the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, this year, when Venezuelan helicopters carrying International Red Cross observers picked up six hostages. "In the last two handovers of hostages," Mr Santos told reporters, "there was always a cameraman sent by Chavez. The video shows a small team of unarmed, disguised Colombian commandos landing in a field of coca bushes in Guaviare department in south-east Colombia, where they were met by a group of Farc rebels, mostly women, escorting the 15 hostages. It then shows them binding the hands of the hostages with plastic cuffs. One hostage, a Colombian soldier, believing the cameraman is a real journalist, angrily complains about his 10 years in captivity. Once aboard the disguised military helicopter, the video shows Ms Betancourt and others reacting in surprise and breaking out in tears after the cuffs were removed and the soldiers revealed themselves. Colombia reports said that, far from being a ruse, the handover was pre-arranged with a payoff through the lover of a turncoat Farc leader. But the army chief, Gen Mario Montoya, denied in a press conference that money was paid in the rescue. Mr Santos and Gen Montoya said the video was taken by a Colombian soldier posing as a journalist accompanying the supposed transfer operation. They said he was there to distract Farc leaders on the ground by interviewing them. Rodolfo Rios, a lawyer for Alfonso Cano, the local rebel commander, also known as Cesar, said his client had told him that "foreign nationals were aboard the rescue helicopter". Mr Rios said their nationality was unknown. While denying any foreign role in the operation, Mr Santos acknowledged that the US ambassador to Colombia had been informed of the planned rescue one week in advance and that the United States had provided some communications equipment for the helicopter. Gen Montoya warned the rebels against harming any of the dozens and perhaps hundreds of hostages they still hold. "We would like to say the following. We do not believe that the Farc will do anything against those hostages. That would be stupid. It would be stupid for them to react in that way," he said. * Agence France-Presse, with reporting by The Associated Press