BOGOTA (Reuters) - French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, three Americans and 11 other hostages were rescued from leftist guerrillas by Colombian troops on Wednesday after years in captivity, the government said.
All of the former captives were in reasonably good healthafter being held in secret jungle camps, Defence Minister JuanManuel Santos said.
The rescue was a huge coup for popular President AlvaroUribe, an anti-guerrilla hard-liner who has used billions ofdollars in U.S. aid to push the rebels onto the defensive, cutcrime and spark economic growth.
Betancourt was the highest profile captive held by theRevolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC,Latin America's oldest surviving left-wing insurgency.
The rescue was carried out in the southern jungle provinceof Guaviare and involved tricking the guerrillas, Santos said.
Soldiers posed as members of a fictitious non-governmentorganization that supposedly would fly the hostages byhelicopter to a camp to meet with rebel leader Alfonso Cano.
"The helicopters, which in reality were from the army,picked up the hostages in Guaviare and flew them to freedom,"Santos said.
Fifteen long-term kidnap victims were rescued in all,including Betancourt and the three Americans, he said.
"This was an unprecedented operation," Santos toldreporters. "It will go down in history for its audaciousnessand effectiveness."
The FARC has been holding about 40 high-profile hostages ithas sought to exchange for jailed rebels.
Betancourt, 46, a former presidential candidate, had becomea symbol of the suffering of the hostages as her dualFrench-Colombian nationality helped draw worldwide attention totheir plight.
BETANCOURT AT MILITARY BASE
In Paris, the office of French President Nicolas Sarkozyconfirmed Betancourt's release.
"Mrs Betancourt is at a military base in Colombia," anofficial of Sarkozy's office said.
Betancourt was kidnapped by the FARC in 2002 and was lastseen in a rebel video at the end of last year looking gaunt anddespondent.
"I am filled with happiness," Betancourt's sister, Astrid,told Colombian radio. "These have been long years of waiting."
France had made vigorous efforts to seek Betancourt'sfreedom.
"I'd like to thank everyone involved, including PresidentSarkozy," Herve Marro, spokesman for an Ingrid Betancourtsupport group in Paris, told French TV station I-Tele.
The Americans freed are former Defence Department contractworkers Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes. Theywere captured in 2003 after their light aircraft crashed in thejungles while on a counternarcotics operation.
U.S. President George W. Bush spoke by telephone with Uribeon Wednesday afternoon.
"President Bush congratulated President Uribe, telling himhe is a 'strong leader.' President Uribe thanked President Bushfor his support and confidence in the Government of Colombia,"Gordon Johndroe, White House National Security Councilspokesman, said in Washington.
CONDITIONS FOR TALKS
The FARC has demanded that Uribe pull back troops from anarea the size of New York City to facilitate talks.
Uribe, whose father was killed in a botched FARC kidnappingyears ago, refuses to accept that condition. But he has offereda smaller safe haven under international observation in an areawhere there are no armed forces or armed groups.
The outlawed rebel army, once a 17,000-member force able toattack cities and kidnap almost at will, has been driven backinto remote areas and now has about 9,000 combatants. Theguerrillas have lost three major leaders this year.
Listed as a terrorist group by U.S. and European officials,the FARC has used Colombia's cocaine trade to fund itsoperations.
In announcing the rescue operation, Santos called on theguerrillas to give up their arms and negotiate a truce.
Michael Shifter, vice-president for Policy at theInter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank, saidthe rescue showed that the FARC was in a serious organizationalcrisis.
"The Colombian government took advantage of the FARC'sweakness and disarray to carry out the mission. It was a biggamble, but it worked," he said.
"Uribe is a risk-taker and is full of surprises. Not thathe needs it, but this remarkable turn of events will furtherboost his popularity.".
(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry and SudipKar-Guptain Paris; Adriana Garcia and Tabassum Zakaria inWashington; Writing by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by FrancesKerry)