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You may have already heard some details of the the dramatic hostage rescue in Colombia this past week:
...two white helicopters arrived in a jungle clearing where the hostages were being held. The men in the helicopters looked like guerrillas, Betancourt later said, describing details of the rescue at the military airport.Members of the Colombian mlitary were disguised as allies of the communist guerrillas on a mission to relocate the hostages. After binding them, they loaded them (along with their captors) on the helicopters, then sprung their little surprise.
"Absolutely surreal," she said, noting that some of the men who got off the helicopter wore T-shirts emblazoned with the iconic image of the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara. "I thought this was the FARC," she said.
Video of the rescue:
The New York Times:
The rescuers included an agent pretending to be Italian, another supposed to be from the Middle East and a third who performed his role as an Australian so convincingly, according to Mr. Santos, that he invoked the spirit of Crocodile Dundee.
Even the video itself was part of the ruse, shot by two agents pretending to be television journalists. The Colombians’ three-minute video captured some of the despair, trickery and euphoria involved in the operation.
In some images, for instance, Ingrid Betancourt, the French-Colombian politician captured by the FARC in 2002, gazes despondently at the ground before being guided aboard the helicopter. Another portion shows Raimundo Malagón, a mustachioed soldier held for a decade by the FARC, pleading to tell his story to the journalists.
The journalists even tried to interview César, the guerrilla charged with guarding the captives, but he declined to talk. César smiled at the cameras, seemingly shy about appearing on film while more than a dozen comrades stood nearby grasping assault rifles.
Choppy and blurry in parts, the video also shows Keith Stansell, one of three American military contractors freed in the operation, while a rebel was handcuffing him. “I love my family,” Mr. Stansell said into the camera, smiling widely. “Pray a lot.”
The rough video lacks audio in parts and seems to have been edited, though Colombian officials attributed a gap to the camera operator lunging at the two guerrillas aboard the helicopter as agents subdued them.
The video ends with images of elation among the captives, who embrace one another aboard the helicopter.
The soldiers had infiltrated the FARC, but still it seems these terrorists were pretty gullible to believe that they had helicopters. It reminds us of an Israeli joke*, recounted in this Ha'aretz story:But deeper background is now available, revealing the helicopters weren't so unbelievable after all. They were Russian craft, painted to resemble those of the terrorists' "friends from Venezuela":
An Israeli pilot whose helicopter was in trouble over the sea lands on an aircraft carrier. The captain chastises him: "How dare you? This is an American aircraft carrier." "Really?," says the Israeli innocently. "I thought it was one of ours."
The undercover officers cultivated an unkempt appearance. Playing a convincing role was crucial because the undercover agents were to be unarmed during the mission. The military got two Russian-made helicopters and painted them in white and red, similar to ones used by Venezuela during the hostage release in January.That via this (subscription only) Wall Street Journal story, headlined "Details Emerge of U.S. Role in Colombia's Hostage Rescue". But that headline might be considered deceptive, too. According to the article that role was minimal ("One area where the Americans were directly involved: Giving Hollywood-style acting classes to the Colombian undercover military officers who duped the guerrillas into handing over the hostages.") and discussion thereof represents a small fraction of the incredible story.
Things went perfectly on the day of the operation. When the helicopter landed, one undercover soldier strolled off to take pictures of the jungle, as a tourist might do. Another two, disguised as television news crew wearing the red shirts and black vests usually worn by reporters from Mr. Chávez's Telesur network, who have been along on prior hostage releases, rushed Mr. Aguilar, and started interviewing him. "It inflated his ego," says a Colombian military officer.
Read the whole thing for details on the planning, training, and execution of a mission that should draw the attention of publishers and Hollywood execs. ("Mr Banderas, the studio is on line one...") Even the comic relief is already available - beyond the Che t-shirts: "Fidel Castro on Thursday praised the Colombian action and said the hostages should never have been held to begin with" and "Mr. Chávez, chastened by the revelations from the captured computers, also praised the rescue and called for the FARC to free all hostages and lay down their arms." Now if only they could find some angle where America looks bad, next year's summer blockbuster would be on the way.
In the meantime, readers might consider the parallels with other debates in the action vs negotiation arguments presented here.
The successful rescue has boosted Mr. Uribe's political standing abroad in capitals other than Washington. Since he took office in 2002, the conservative has launched an aggressive military campaign against the FARC, which funds itself largely through drug trafficking, extortion and kidnapping, holding nearly 700 hostages in the dense Colombian jungles.
Mr. Uribe's campaign has decimated the FARC and earned him high approval ratings at home, but also has drawn criticism from many Latin American and European governments that the Colombian leader has relied solely on a military solution to the insurgency at the expense of negotiations. Mr. Uribe, whose father was killed by the FARC in a botched kidnapping attempt, firmly believes the group won't negotiate unless it is forced to its knees.
Those differences also came into play over how to deal with some 40 hostages the FARC held for political purposes rather than for ransom, a number that until last week included the Americans and Ms. Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian national. Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and France's Nicolas Sarkozy urged the Colombian government to avoid any rescue mission that could endanger the hostages and negotiated directly with the FARC. This year, that approach gained momentum when the FARC released a handful of hostages through Mr. Chávez's offices.
But things changed dramatically March 1, when the Colombian military killed the FARC's No. 2 man, Raul Reyes, in a bombing raid on his camp just across the border in Ecuador. Laptop computers that belonged to Mr. Reyes showed that Mr. Chávez and the FARC were using the negotiation process to try to gain international legitimacy for the rebels and force Mr. Uribe to call off his military offensive.
Emails in the laptops also revealed that the FARC had no intention of releasing either the three Americans or Ms. Betancourt, calling her their most valuable negotiating card. But in one dramatic stroke this week, the rescue mission won support for Mr. Uribe's get-tough approach.
"I have to recognize that the strong hand has prevailed," said human-rights activist Robert Menard, founder and secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders. "Our insistence on the need to negotiate with the FARC, hoping they would release their most valuable card, was foolish."