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Colombia Frees Betancourt, U.S. Hostages

Published: July 4, 2008 (Issue # 1387)



  • Yolanda Pulecio kisses her daughter, French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt (r) following her rescue on Wednesday.
    Photo: John Vizcaino / Reuters

BOGOTA, Colombia — Ingrid Betancourt woke up, as always, at 4 a.m., for another numbing day in her seventh year of rebel captivity deep in Colombia’s jungle.

The former presidential candidate listened to news of her mother and daughter over the radio then was told to pack by her guerrilla captors — helicopters were coming.

The sound always filled her with dread, but this time she and 14 other hostages — including three U.S. military contractors held since 2003 — were airlifted to freedom in an audaciously “perfect” operation involving military spies who tricked the rebels into handing over their prize hostages without firing a shot.

The stunning caper involved months of intelligence gathering, dozens of helicopters on standby and a strong dose of deceit: The rebels shoved the captives, their hands bound, onto a white unmarked MI-17 helicopter, believing they were being transferred to another guerrilla camp.

Looking at helicopter’s crew, some wearing Che Guevara shirts, Betancourt reasoned they weren’t aid workers, as she’d expected — but rebels.

This was just another indignity — the helicopter “had no flag, no insignia.” Angry and upset, she refused a coat they offered as they told her she was going to a colder climate.

But not long after the group was airborne, Betancourt turned around and saw the local commander, alias Cesar, a man who had tormented her for four years, blindfolded and stripped naked on the floor.

Then came the unbelievable words.

“We’re the national army,” said one of the crewman. “You’re free.”

The helicopter crew were soldiers in disguise. Cesar and the other guerrilla aboard had been persuaded to hand over their pistols, then overpowered.

Not a single shot was fired in Wednesday’s rescue mission, which snatched from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the four foreigners who were its greatest bargaining chips.

“The helicopter almost fell from the sky because we were jumping up and down, yelling, crying, hugging one another,” Betancourt later said.

The operation, which also freed 11 Colombian soldiers and police, “will go into history for its audacity and effectiveness,” Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said.

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ALL ABOUT TOWN

Tuesday, Jan. 27


Celebrate the 71st anniversary of the end of the Siege of Leningrad on Palace Square with a free concert at 7 p.m. Listen to WWII-era songs and the poetry of Olga Bergholz while you peruse outdoor exhibitions dedicated to life during wartime. The event is capped off by a fireworks display at 9 p.m.



Stop by the Lexica School of Foreign Languages at 73 Ligovsky Prospekt from now until Friday for a free English lesson. The classes start at 7 p.m. and cover all levels, from Beginner to Advanced. Registration by telephone on 7641692 and a desire to improve your skills are the only prerequisites.



Wednesday, Jan. 28



Feel like becoming a publishing mogul? Stop by the Freedom anti-cafe at 7 Ulitsa Kazanskaya today at 8 p.m. where Simferopol, Crimea-based founder and chief editor of the Holst online magazine will talk about creating an internet magaine, including what stories to cover, how find an audience and build a team, where to find inspiration and how to stand out from the crowd. Admission is the normal price of the anti-café — 2 rubles per minute, which includes tea and snacks.



Learn everything you always wanted to know about wine, and perhaps a bit more, at the Le Nez du Vin seminar for wine lovers. Held at the WineJet Sommelier School, 100 Bolshoy Prospekt Petrograd Side, at 7:30 p.m., the event will cover wine production, the basics of wine tasting, the concept of terroir and the various countries where wine is produced. Tickets are 750 rubles and include a wine tasting. Register by calling +7 921 744 6264.



Thursday, Jan. 29



Attend a master class on how to deal with complicated business negotiations today at the International Banking Institute, 6 Malaya Sadovaya Ulitsa. Running from 3 to 6 p.m., Vadim Sokolov, an assistant professor at the St. Petersburg State University of Economics, will introduce aspects of managing the negotiation process and increasing its effectiveness. Attendance is free with pre-registration by telephone on 909 3056 or online at www.ibispb.ru



Celebrate what would be writer Anton Chekov's 155th birthday at the Bokvoed bookshop at 46 Nevsky Prospekt. Starting at 5 p.m., the legendary author will be feted with readings of his stories and short performances based on his plays by various St. Petersburg actors. Chekov's book will also be offered at a 15% discount during the event.





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