Thursday, July 3, 2008

Great Escape

How the Colombians freed the FARC hostages.

BOGOTA — The rescuers came wearing Che Guevara T-shirts and logos declaring them delegates of some obscure organization.

They didn’t look much like an international humanitarian brigade. And they weren’t.

They were the Colombian intelligence agents who pulled off ”Operation Checkmate,” one of the greatest military capers in Colombia’s history — a mission that would finally liberate the world’s most famous hostage from the hands of leftist rebels in the jungle.

Without firing a single shot.

”Who are these people? What kind of international commission is this?” former hostage and once-presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt remembered thinking. ”Are we clowns in another circus? I didn’t want any part of it.”

In a military operation described as ”unprecedented” and ”perfect,” the Colombian armed forces Wednesday infiltrated the top command of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — Latin America’s oldest insurgency — and tricked rebels into handing over Betancourt, held hostage for six years, and three American defense contractors, held for five years. It was an effort the White House says it knew about and helped support.

The hostages, the rebel group’s most-prized possessions, were held in chains in jungle camps in the hopes the government would swap them for guerrilla prisoners.

The three Americans — Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves — were scuttled out of the Andean nation and were set to arrive Wednesday night in San Antonio.

Their release brought praise from presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama, House Leader Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said the ruse that also freed 11 Colombian soldiers and police officers was straight out of an action flick, and added that the mission garnered even more spoils: ”César,” Betancourt’s guerrilla warden all these years, was captured and placed under arrest.

”This was an unprecedented operation,” Santos said at a press conference at the military airport in Bogotá. ”What our armed forces did was something out of a movie.”

Welcome home, and congratulations to the rescue team.