BOGOTA, Colombia Colombian spies tricked leftist rebels into handing over kidnapped presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors Wednesday in a daring helicopter rescue so successful that not a single shot was fired.
Betancourt, who was seized on the campaign trail six long years ago, appeared thin but healthy as she strode down the stairs of a military plane and held her mother in a long embrace.
"Thank you for your impeccable operation," she told top military commanders. "The operation was perfect."
Eleven Colombian police and soldiers were also freed in the rescue, the most serious blow ever dealt to the 44-year-old Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which considered the four hostages their most valuable bargaining chips. The FARC is already reeling from the deaths of key commanders and the loss of much of the territory it once held.
Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said military intelligence agents infiltrated the guerrilla ranks and led the local commander in charge of the hostages, alias Cesar, to believe they were going to take them to Alfonso Cano, the guerrillas' supreme leader.
The hostages, who had been divided in three groups, were taken to a rallying point where two disguised helicopters piloted by Colombian military agents were waiting. Betancourt said her hands and feet were bound.
"We were frustrated because we were handcuffed," she said. "We were very indignant, very humiliated."
Only when the helicopters were airborne did military crewmembers reveal their identity, she said.
"The chief of the operation said, 'We're the national army. You're free,"' she said, adding that the hostages were so shocked, it was as if "the helicopter almost fell from the sky."
Santos said Cesar and another rebel on board "were neutralized." He didn't elaborate, but said they were unhurt and would soon face justice. Santos said the other rebel captors retreated into the jungle and the army let them escape "in hopes that they will free the rest of the hostages," believed to number about 700.
The operation, Santos said, "will go into history for its audacity and effectiveness."
"We wanted to have it happen as it did today," added armed forces chief Gen. Freddy Padilla. "Without a single shot. Without anyone wounded. Absolutely safe and sound, without a scratch."
At a Bogota ceremony with top military commanders, the freed hostages walked up to a microphone one by one, identified themselves by name and rank, and thanked their rescuers. Some had been held for a dozen years, captured when rebels overran military outposts.
Last to speak was the French-Colombian Betancourt, who wore military fatigues and a floppy camouflage hat as she hugged her mother, Yolanda Pulecio, and her husband, Juan Carlos LeCompte. She removed her hat to reveal intricately braided dark hair, with plaits framing her face and a white flower.
In Paris, her son Lorenzo Delloye-Betancourt called her release "the most beautiful news of my life." He and other relatives were flying to Colombia to join her.
The Americans Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell were flying directly to the United States to reunite with their families, Santos said.
They had been the longest-held American hostages in the world.
Gonsalves' father George was mowing the yard of his Hebron, Connecticut, home when an excited neighbor relayed the news he had seen on television: "I didn't know how to stop my lawnmower. I was shocked. I couldn't believe it."
"We're still teary-eyed and not quite have our wits about us," said Stansell's stepmother Lynne.
U.S. President George W. Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy congratulated Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
Santos renewed the government's offer to negotiate with the reeling rebel movement, who many believe is nearing the end of its four-decade fight. Battlefield losses and widespread desertions have cut rebel numbers in half to about 9,000 as the United States has poured billions of dollars in military aid into Colombia.
This year, historic leader Manuel Marulanda died of a reported heart attack, and two other top commanders were killed. The rest are hunkered down in remote jungle and mountain hideouts, unable to communicate effectively.
Santos said Colombia had infiltrated the rebels' seven-man ruling secretariat, but did not elaborate.
"The government reiterates to them that if they want to enter into serious negotiations in good faith, we are offering a dignified peace," Santos said.
U.S. presidential candidate John McCain said Uribe had told him in advance of the rescue plans while he was campaigning in Colombia. "It's a very high-risk operation," he said. "I congratulate President Uribe, the military and the nation of Colombia."
Betancourt, 46, was abducted in February 2002. The Americans were captured a year after Betancourt when their drug surveillance plane went down in rebel-held jungle.
In the five years since their abduction, their families had received only two "proof of life" videos, the latest in November.
That tape also showed the first images since 2003 of Betancourt. Along with letters and reports from other hostages, they showed a once-vibrant, confident woman slowly succumbing to Hepatitis B, tropical skin diseases and depression. One former hostage said Betancourt was kept chained to a tree after trying to escape. There was no immediate word on Betancourt's condition.
Associated Press writers Beth Fouhy, traveling with the McCain campaign, and Stephen Singer in Hebron, contributed to this report.