'Nirvana!' Freed hostage Betancourt heads home

Israeli technology, training credited with aiding rescue of former Colombian presidential candidate.

Betancourt 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Betancourt 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt embraced her children for the first time in six years on Thursday, saying the thought of them helped her stay alive until a daring rescue plucked her and 14 other hostages from the jungle. "Nirvana, paradise - that must be very similar to what I feel at this moment," Betancourt said, fighting back tears as her son reached over to kiss her. "It was because of them that I kept up my will to get out of that jungle." Betancourt, who appeared thin but surprisingly healthy, raced to the stairway of the French government plane that flew her children to Bogota, throwing her arms around Lorenzo, 19, and Melanie, 22. "The last time I saw my son, Lorenzo was a little kid and I could carry him around," she said. "I told them, they're going to have to put up with me now, because I'm going to be stuck to them like chewing gum." Betancourt, 46, was airlifted to freedom late Wednesday in an audacious operation involving military spies who tricked the rebels into handing over their most prized hostages - including three US military contractors - without firing a shot. Colombian television showed an emotional Betancourt recounting the dramatic sequence of events, as The New York Times reported, "complete with Colombian agents infiltrating guerrilla camps and borrowing Israeli tracking technology to zero in on their target." The Israeli Web site Infolive.tv reported that former IDF officers from elite units had trained the Colombian security forces who carried out the rescue operation. "It is a known fact that Colombia hired a number of former IDF generals and officers to advise on improving Colombia's intelligence and paramilitary capabilities," it said. "Colombian security forces have also undergone training in Israel." Israeli officials declined comment. A flight carrying the Americans - Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell - landed in Texas late Wednesday after being flown there directly. Colombia's Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said the rescue operation "will go into history for its audacity and effectiveness." He also acknowledged the risks: "If this had failed, I would have had to resign," he told Caracol Radio on Thursday. It was the most serious blow ever dealt to the 44-year-old FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), which is already reeling from the recent deaths of key commanders and thousands of defections after withering pressure from Colombia's US-trained and advised armed forces. Betancourt was abducted in February 2002 while she was campaigning for president. The Americans were captured a year later when their drug surveillance plane went down in rebel-held jungle. Some of the others had been held for a dozen years. A dual French national who grew up in Paris, Betancourt had become a cause celebre across Europe. The office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had made Betancourt's liberation a priority of state, said Betancourt was expected to arrive in France on Friday. Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.