Betancourt meets children in Colombia, while Americans return home

In Colombia, rescued soldiers and policemen were welcomed with cheers and a mariachi band.

Colombia's most famous hostage, Ingrid Betancourt, was reunited with her son and daughter in what she described as an "orgy of kisses" Thursday, a day after she and 14 other hostages were plucked from the clutches of their rebel captors in the jungles of southern Colombia.

Ms. Betancourt, a French-Colombian politician, locked into an emotional embrace with her daughter, Melanie, and son, Lorenzo, who arrived in Bogotá on a French government plane from Paris. The pair were 13 and 16 when she was kidnapped by FARC rebels in February 2002 while campaigning for the Colombian presidency, and have since grown into young adults who led a fierce campaign to press for their mother's release.

"Nirvana, paradise - that must be very similar to what I feel at this moment," Betancourt said as she gripped the hands of her son, now 19, and daughter, 22, whom she had not seen in six-and-a-half years. "It was because of them that I kept up my will to get out of that jungle.

"These are my babies, my pride, my reason for living, my light, my moon, my stars, she said. "Forgive me for saying it, but I think they are very good-looking."

Betancourt is expected to travel to Paris on Friday, where she will be greeted at a military airport by President Nicolas Sarkozy, who, along with other French officials, have made her release a government priority.

Betancourt, three American defense contractors, and 11 soldiers and police officers were rescued in a stunning intelligence operation Wednesday at the heart of the rebel organization, known as FARC, that had held them from between six and 11 years.

The rescued soldiers and policemen were welcomed back to freedom at military headquarters amid cheers from colleagues and a mariachi band that belted out joyful songs of reunion.

The three Americans released in the operation, Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes, and Marc Gonsalves, who were kidnapped after their plane went down during a drug-surveillance mission over the jungle, returned to the United States late Wednesday night. They were taken to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, almost immediately after their rescue for medical tests and to be united with their families. They were not expected to make any public comments on Thursday.

In Colombia, people continued to marvel Thursday at how the operation had been pulled off.

US Ambassador William Brownfield said he had been informed of the rescue about two weeks ago and that although the plan was 100 percent Colombian, the United States had offered "close cooperation" and "some equipment." The US has given Colombia more than $5.5 billion in aid since 2000, most of it targeted at the military. US troops in Colombia often help with intelligence analysis and the planning of missions.

r Wire material was used in this report.

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