By Hugh Bronstein
BOGOTA (Reuters) - French-Colombian politician IngridBetancourt, three Americans and 11 other hostages were rescuedfrom leftist guerrillas by Colombian troops on Wednesday,Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said.
Santos said all of the former captives were in reasonablygood health after being held for years in secret jungle camps.
The rescue took place on Wednesday in the southern jungleprovince of Guaviare. Fifteen long-term kidnap victims wererescued in all, including Betancourt and the three Americans,Santos said.
The news was a coup for popular President Alvaro Uribe, ananti-guerrilla hard-liner who has used billions of dollars inU.S. aid to push the rebels onto the defensive, cut crime andspark economic growth.
"This was an unprecedented operation," Santos toldreporters. "It will go down in history for its audaciousnessand effectiveness."
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as theFARC, has been holding about 40 high-profile hostages it hassought to exchange for jailed rebels.
Betancourt, a former presidential candidate with dualnationality, was kidnapped by the FARC in 2002. She 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."
The Americans, three Defense Department contract workers,were captured in 2003 after their light aircraft crashed in thejungles while on a counternarcotics operation.
In Paris an aide to President Nicolas Sarkozy, asked aboutthe news, said the presidency had no comment to make for themoment and that it could not confirm the news.
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.
CONDITIONS FOR TALKS
The FARC, waging Latin America's oldest insurgency, hasdemanded that Uribe pull back troops from an area the size ofNew York City to facilitate talks.
Uribe, popular at home for his tough stance against therebels, refuses to accept that condition. But he has offered asmaller safe haven under international observation in an areawhere there are no armed forces or armed groups.
The FARC, once a 17,000-member force able to attack citiesand kidnap almost at will, has been driven back into remoteareas and now has about 9,000 combatants. The guerrillas havelost 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.
(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry and SudipKar-Guptain Paris;Writing by Hugh Bronstein and JohnO'Callaghan; Editing by Frances Kerry)