Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A wonderful testament to our Catholic Faith...

Betancourt set for medical after hero's welcome in France

Posted Sat Jul 5, 2008 3:05pm AEST
Updated Sat Jul 5, 2008 4:07pm AEST

Freed Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt faced a day of medical tests in Paris on Saturday (local time) after receiving a hero's welcome following her six-year hostage ordeal, as video footage was released of her dramatic rescue.

Snatched from the grip of Marxist FARC rebels in a Colombian army operation Wednesday, along with three US hostages and 11 Colombians, Ms Betancourt arrived in France on Friday on board a French presidential plane from Bogota.

After being feted by President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace, the 46-year-old former Colombian presidential candidate, who also has French nationality, was to spend Saturday undergoing an in-depth medical examination at a military hospital in Paris.

Though she told reporters she felt "in great shape," she developed a string of ailments while in captivity, possibly including hepatitis.

On her arrival at Villacoublay airbase outside Paris, Ms Betancourt walked smiling down the stairs of the plane to embrace Mr Sarkozy and First Lady Carla Bruni, waiting to welcome her to her second home.

"I am so happy to breathe the air of France. I owe France everything," she told the crowd waiting to welcome her.

"I have shed a great many tears of pain and indignation. Today I am crying with joy," she said, her voice breaking with emotion. "You saved my life."

"Ingrid Betancourt, welcome. France loves you," Mr Sarkozy told her.

Ms Betancourt paid a personal tribute to the French president, who made her release a top priority, as "this extraordinary man who fought so hard for me."

"This extraordinary, perfect operation by the Colombian army... is also the result of your struggle," she said, explaining that France staunchly opposed any armed "military operation that would put the hostages' lives in danger."

A video showing hostages angry and resigned at having their hands bound, and then minutes later sobbing with jubilation aboard a helicopter upon discovering they had been freed, was shown on Friday for the first time by Colombia military.

The video of FARC rebels benignly handing over the 15 hostages to disguised Colombian commandos was released to counter questions about the military's dramatic and bloodless coup, Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos said.

The video shows the unarmed, disguised Colombian commandos binding the hands of the hostages with plastic cuffs, as one hostage, a Colombian soldier, angrily scolds the fake guerrillas for his treatment.

Once aboard the disguised military helicopter, the video shows Ms Betancourt and others reacting in surprise and breaking out in tears after the cuffs were removed and the soldiers revealed themselves.

"This is absolutely false," Mr Santos told reporters, when asked about reports that $US20 million had been paid as ransom, and that it was all arranged in advance with a rebel commander in charge of the hostages.

Ms Betancourt was accompanied on the flight to Paris by her daughter Melanie, 22, and son Lorenzo, 19.

Speaking at the reception with her supporters at the Elysee palace, she urged Mr Sarkozy to keep working to free the hundreds of other hostages still held by Colombia's FARC rebels, Latin America's most powerful left-wing insurgency.

"Let it be clear, we will continue," the French president replied.

Paris is where Ms Betancourt grew up, studied and raised her family. Her children had waged a relentless campaign for their mother's release, making her a cause celebre in France.

Ms Betancourt said in a radio interview she had been chained up night and day for three years by her captors.

Asked whether she was tortured, she replied: "Yes, yes." She said she saw her captors lapsing into "diabolical behaviour."

"It was so monstrous that I think they themselves were disgusted," she said.

Later thousands of people watched as Ms Betancourt took down a poster of her face displayed on the Paris Town Hall during her captivity.

A fervent Catholic who called her release a "miracle of the Virgin Mary," Ms Betancourt has also been invited to meet Pope Benedict XVI.

"It is a meeting that one cannot pass up," she told AFP.

The Colombian army rescue mission was a huge triumph in President Alvaro Uribe's long battle against the leftist rebels.

A news outlet close to FARC said on Thursday the group would be open to peace talks with the Uribe government.

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