A rundown of the Colombian hostage rescue
Bogota -The operation to pluck 15 hostages from their jailers in the Colombian jungle unfolded with clockwork precision thanks to Colombian intelligence agents who tricked the rebels into putting the captives on a disguised army helicopter.
Here is a timeline of the operation, as recounted by military authorities and freed hostages.
- 12:00 am (0500 GMT) Wednesday: Soldiers under the direct supervision of Army Commander Mario Montoya conduct a final rehearsal of the operation, the launch of which was delayed 24 hours.
- 5:00 am: In a FARC jungle camp in eastern Colombia, hostages begin their day as usual, listening to messages from relatives that are regularly broadcast on Colombian radio.
- 7:00 am: The rebel commander in charge of the hostages, Gerardo Aguilar alias "Cesar," tells them they should prepare to move camp.
- Just after noon: Two Colombian military helicopters, painted white and red to look like aircraft used in humanitarian missions, leave a base in eastern Colombia, headed for the jungle of Guaviare department.
- 1:13 pm: One of the helicopters lands in a clearing near the rebel encampment, not far from the Apaporis river, 70 kilometres (44 miles) south of San Jose del Guaviare, while the other remains aloft.
Six soldiers are on board including two pilots, all of them disguised as members of an international humanitarian mission or guerrillas. The latter tell "Cesar" he is to bring the hostages to another camp where they will meet new FARC chief Alfonso Cano in person.
- 1:30 pm: After a brief conversation, "Cesar" and another rebel order the hostages to be bound at the wrist and put on the helicopter, which the two guerrillas also board.
- 1:35 pm: The helicopter lifts off from the guerrilla camp, and one of the pilots alerts military commanders with code language - "generators ready" - that the hostages are in their hands.
- 1:41 pm: At 2 500 feet (about 833 metres) altitude, two soldiers overpower "Cesar" and his companion, yelling to the hostages: "We are the Army of Colombia, you are free!" The president is informed by telephone.
- Just after 2:00 pm: The helicopters land at San Jose del Guaviare where 11 hostages are transferred to a military plane that will take them to the Tolemaida military base, where the presidential aeroplane awaits them.
"I want first of all to thank God and the Colombian soldiers," Betancourt tells a reporter for an army radio station in the region.
- US nationals Thomas Howes, Marc Gonsalves and Keith Stansell are separated from the group and board a US aeroplane that will fly them directly to the United States.
- 2:15 pm: Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos announces the release in a press conference in Bogota.
- 5:08 pm: The presidential aeroplane carrying Betancourt and 11 other Colombian hostages arrives at Catam military base west of Bogota.
- Betancourt walks out of the aeroplane and into the arms of her mother Yolanda Pulecio and her husband Juan Carlos Lecompte. - Sapa-AFP