BOGOTA, Colombia - Colombian military intelligence agents posing as aid workers and a media crew flew to the jungle aboard a white helicopter, staging a mock humanitarian mission that rebels were told would ferry their hostages to another camp for talks on a prisoner swap.
The would-be envoys had honed their accents in acting lessons: Italian, Arab, Caribbean Spanish, and Australian English "identical to Crocodile Dundee," Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said Friday as he explained how the military duped the rebels into turning over 15 hostages.
Santos said military intelligence agents had infiltrated the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, so that guerrillas believed the hostages were being moved on the orders of top rebel leader Alfonso Cano for negotiations on a prisoner exchange. To play their roles, some soldiers wore Che Guevara T-shirts.
Video filmed during the rescue shows the hostages filing grim-faced toward the helicopter in a grassy clearing fringed with a coca field, then embracing and weeping with joy after they are aloft and realize they are free.
Presenting the video at a news conference, Santos said that Wednesday's elaborate ruse intentionally mimicked two hostage handovers brokered by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez earlier this year, when Venezuelan helicopters carrying International Red Cross observers picked up six hostages.
"In the last two handovers of hostages," Santos told reporters, "there was always a cameraman sent by Chavez."
The three-minute video presented at Colombia's military headquarters showed the mission was modeled after the Venezuelan operations down to the red T-shirt worn by a supposed journalist, who poses questions to a rebel while hostages' hands are bound with plastic handcuffs.
The guerrillas' most famous hostage, former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, stands with an angry expression.
American Keith Stansell nears the camera.
"I love my family," Stansell, one of three Americans freed in the operation, tells the cameraman. "Pray a lot."
The local rebel commander, alias Cesar, cheerfully refuses an interview.
The video shows a line of rebels standing in the distance watching as the helicopter starts up. Cesar and another rebel came aboard the helicopter and, once airborne, were overpowered by the soldiers a moment that was not filmed.
The final images on the video capture the hostages' elation as they realize their captors are actually soldiers rescuing them.
Betancourt, the French-Colombian politician kidnapped in 2002, cries with joy and astonishment, and hugs William Perez, a fellow hostage whom she later credited for nursing her through jungle illnesses.
"We waited 10 years for you!" exclaims Perez, an army corporal who was captured by the FARC in March 1998.
A lawyer for Cesar, whose real name is Gerardo Aguilar, told The Associated Press that his client was completely hoodwinked by the operation.
Rodolfo Rios said his client, who is now jailed in Bogota, "only realized the deception when he was in the aircraft. ... He also told me he was hit and that, after they immobilized him, they applied various injections."
Paraded past reporters on Friday, Cesar wouldn't say who had hit him. He had a black eye and bruises on his face.
A beacon and microphones were aboard the Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter, allowing those overseeing the rescue to monitor its progress, a U.S. official told the AP, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the subject's sensitivity.
Santos said a U.S. surveillance plane was overhead monitoring the mission.
He denied reports in international media that Israel was involved in the operation, adding that it was "100 percent Colombian."
"Not a single foreigner participated," he said.
He also denied a Swiss radio report that Colombia had paid millions of dollars in ransom to rebels in exchange for the hostages.
The government does offer rewards for information leading to the arrest of FARC leaders, but in this case, Santos said: "Not a cent has been paid."
Guidelines: Please keep your comments smart and civil. Don't attack other readers personally, and keep your language decent. Comments that violate these standards, or our privacy statement or visitor's agreement, are subject to being removed and commenters are subject to being banned. To post comments, you must be a registered user on toledoblade.com. To find out more, please visit the FAQ.