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Colombia's Uribe soars after freeing hostages

The president's approval rating skyrocketed to 90 percent after the military freed 15 high-profile hostages from a jungle rebel camp.

By Sibylla BrodzinskyCorrespondent / July 7, 2008

Reunion: Politician Ingrid Betancourt was reunited with her children in France last week after being held by Colombian rebels since 2002.

Ricardo Mazalan/AP

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia

President Álvaro Uribe is still soaking up the glory of last week's spectacular rescue of 15 high-profile hostages held in the Colombian jungle for years by leftist rebels.

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Polls released Sunday show that Mr. Uribe's approval rating – which was already at 73 percent – soared to 91 percent after the rescue, which freed French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, three American defense contractors, and 11 Colombian soldiers and police.

Wednesday's bloodless intelligence operation tricked the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) into taking their most prized hostages on a helicopter they believed would transport them to the group's top leaders. Instead, the chopper was piloted by undercover military operatives who took the captives to freedom.

It was such a coup against the FARC that even some of Uribe's most fervent critics are heaping on the praise.

"It was brilliant," said Marta Pabón, who normally considers herself a detractor of Uribe, as she walked her dog Sunday morning. "No one can take that recognition from him. But I'm afraid now of how he will use that politically."

Could Uribe get a third term?

Uribe, who was originally elected in 2002, then again in 2006, has been toying with the idea of seeking a constitutional amendment to allow him to run for yet another term in office. His supporters say they have already collected enough signatures to call a referendum on the issue.

The Sunday poll by the Napoleon Franco agency, published in the El Espectador daily, showed that 79 percent of voters, if given the choice, would vote for Uribe, compared with 69 percent before the rescue.

Perhaps the most powerful endorsement for Uribe to try to continue in power was Ms. Betancourt herself, who gushed praise on the president for an "impeccable" operation.

In a press conference the day after her rescue, she said she like the idea of a third term for Uribe.

Betancourt – who was a presidential candidate herself when she was kidnapped in 2002 – said that aside from the rescue operation that freed her and her fellow hostages, the biggest blow to the FARC had been the reelection of the hardline president to a second consecutive term in 2006.

"The reelection changed the rules of the game for the FARC," she said. "The FARC had gotten used to waiting for changes in government to gain new momentum, but with the system of reelection of president Uribe, the rules changed."

Indeed, it's hard to overstate how Uribe's actions – especially this most recent operation – have weakened the leftist rebels, say experts.

With that one operation, Uribe freed hostages – some of whom had languished in jungle camps for more than a decade. He took away the FARC's most important bargaining chips and set the stage for Uribe to stay in power.

"For the FARC this is a mortal blow. They will never be able to recover from this," says Alfredo Rangel, military analyst and director of the Security and Democracy Foundation in Bogotá.

This happens at the worst moment for the FARC, he added, following the death of three members of its top secretariat this year, including legendary top leader Manuel Marulanda.