BOGOTA – Colombian troops on Wednesday rescued former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said.
Santos told a press conference in Bogota that the hostages were freed from a FARC encampment in the southern province of Guaviare.
He said the group includes Betancourt – the most prominent of FARC hostages – and U.S. military contractors Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves, who were captured in 2003 when their light aircraft went down in rebel-controlled territory.
The minister said the rescued hostages were being transported in helicopters to San José del Guaviare, the provincial capital. Planning for the “unprecedented” rescue operation began more than a year ago, Santos said.
He said nobody was hurt in Wednesday’s operation and that hostages were in relatively good health, according to the BBC.
FARC, a left-wing rebel group that has battled a succession of Colombia governments since the early 1960s, had been trying to trade the 15 captives reported freed Wednesday along with 25 others in exchange for hundreds of jailed guerrillas.
The rebels’ most valuable bargaining chip was Betancourt, a dual Colombian-French citizen whom FARC captured in February 2002. Her plight became a cause célèbre in Europe and around the world.
Earlier this year, the guerrillas unilaterally released six hostages to leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who had been involved in trying to broker a prisoner swap between FARC and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s government.
Chávez recently called on FARC to release all the captives “in exchange for nothing.” He also urged the group to abandon the armed struggle.
FARC has suffered heavy setbacks this year. Founder and leader Manuel “Sureshot” Marulanda died of a heart attack in late March, just weeks after their No. 2 commander, Raúl Reyes, was killed in a raid by the Colombian military on a camp in neighboring Ecuador.