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THE SITUATION ROOM

Hostages Rescued in Colombia

Aired July 2, 2008 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm John Roberts. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
And we welcome our viewers, both in the United States and around the world who are watching on CNNI.

We are following breaking news tonight. Three American hostages held by a brutal Colombian terrorist group for more than five years have been rescued, along with former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. And we have just learned that the Americans, Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell, and Marc Gonsalves, will arrive at an Army hospital in Texas tonight.

CNN's Brian Todd joins us live with the latest details.

Hi, Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, John.

We are told that this rescue is the result of an elaborate intelligence operation by the Colombian government that duped the rebel group holding the hostages. This is seen as a severe blow to that notorious and very dangerous band. And Colombian citizens are now welcoming home one of their most beloved politicians.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): The last time we saw Ingrid Betancourt, she looked emaciated. A video released late last year showed the former Colombian presidential candidate in captivity in the jungle. Other hostages who had been released said she had been in poor health when they saw her. And her husband was worried.

JUAN CARLOS LECOMPTE, HUSBAND OF INGRID BETANCOURT: She can die any time, i mean, because she is right now very weak. We are right now in an emergency. We cannot wait any longer, more months or more years. We can wait only weeks or days.

TODD: Now news that she's been rescued. Betancourt's captors for more than six years, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, at war for decades with the Colombian government. FARC held about 750 hostages, including three American contractors, who the Colombian government says were also rescued with Betancourt.

One of them, Marc Gonsalves, was reported to have developed hepatitis while in captivity, the others, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell. The only word the world had from the three men who had been captured in 2003 came in proof of life videos like this one made by a Colombian journalist.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: The U.S. State Department was in the process of contacting the families of these three Americans, who apparently knew nothing of this rescue operation. These three men had been held since 2003, when their plane crashed in the Colombian jungle and FARC killed the two crew members. These men had been conducting a counternarcotics operation -- John.

ROBERTS: And, Brian, their long captivity had led to some tensions between the families and the State Department, correct?

TODD: It had. The families had long been frustrated that more wasn't done to negotiate with the FARC for their release. But the U.S. government's policy was not to negotiate with groups considered terrorist organizations. The FARC rebel group is still on that list.

ROBERTS: So, Brian, they're expected back in Texas tonight, going to Brooke Army Medical Center, which people will be familiar as a place where many veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars go, where severely injured near long-term care. Why would they be taking these hostages there? Do you know?

TODD: Well, it's common practice to take hostages who have been held long in captivity to U.S. military hospitals. As you recall, John, the hostages held in Lebanon in the Middle East in the '80s were taken to military hospitals first. Many of them were.

Also, as we reported this one, Marc Gonsalves, had been reported to have hepatitis. That was last year. And his condition probably could have only worsened. He may be in some very serious shape right now.

ROBERTS: Right. I also believe that Brooke Army Medical Center has a rather extensive tropical diseases section to it as well. So, perhaps that has got something to do with it.

Our Karl Penhaul is in Colombia. He's on the phone with us. He has got some more information as to what's going on, on the ground there.

Karl, what's going on at the airport in Bogota right now?

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The hostages are being taken to a military base just west of Bogota in (INAUDIBLE) And then what we have been told from there is the three American hostages that have been released will then be flown almost immediately to an Army facility in San Antonio, Texas.

So, they won't remain on the ground too much longer in Colombia. We expect that Ingrid Betancourt to be flown from that military base in (INAUDIBLE) to Bogota in the course of this evening. And still details of the rescue operation sketchy. We have heard from a radio report from Ingrid Betancourt. She described the operation as an impeccable rescue operation. We haven't heard any further details from military, although they are describing it as an operation based on surveillance and infiltration that lasted weeks or months. There is no suggestion that any shots were actually fired during the rescue operation -- John.

ROBERTS: We should mention that, as we're speaking to you on the television, we're looking at live pictures from the airport in Bogota. It looks like some sort of official announcement is going to be made. There are a number of military people there, some officials of the Colombian government. A podium has been set up. So, we're expecting some sort of announcement soon.

Some private aircraft moving in the background. Not known if any of them will be ferrying the three Americans from Bogota to San Antonio, to the Brooke Army Medical Center, as you were saying, Karl.

Karl, can you walk us through some of the details of the operation to rescue these hostages? How long has it been in the planning? When was it executed?

PENHAUL: It certainly appears to have been in the planning for many weeks, if not months.

The military did say a few weeks ago that they had had sightings of some of the American hostages in one of the jungle paths, a report that really wasn't taken too seriously at the time. On the basis of that, the head of the armed forces has said that there was an infiltration and surveillance operation. So, it seems that the military have been following these people for quite some while.

ROBERTS: Karl, as we're watching the pictures here from the airport, we understand from our sources that we are soon going to be seeing some of the hostages as they arrive there. Not known if the American hostages will be among them or not.

As you can imagine, they're under tight wraps after being flown out of the jungle.

Back to the operation, Karl. The commandos, as I understand it, came into the area where the hostages were being held, where the FARC had this base set up, and they, first of all, captured rebels who were in an outer security cordon?

PENHAUL: From what we understand from the military, about two rebels have been captured. He hasn't spoken of anymore. And this is why it seems somewhat strange, because guerrillas certainly would be prize hostages. And with Betancourt and the Americans, I think the security detail would certainly have been much larger.

ROBERTS: All right.

And, obviously, this is big news down there in Colombia. We're seeing a television reporter on the air right now. We're going to keep watching this, because, as I said, we are expecting some of the hostages, not sure if the Americans will be among them, to arrive very soon at that airport. As we have been reporting, the American hostages will be flown to the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. Expected to arrive there some time around midnight. Brooke Army Medical Center in will be familiar to you. It was a place where many veterans of the Iraq war who are severely injured go for long-term care. There is a tropical diseases unit there as well, which is one reason why these Americans, who were military contractors, will be taken.

We have heard from Brian Todd that one of them has -- had, at least, don't know if he still has, a pretty serious bout of hepatitis, and obviously there is going to be a need for them to receive medical care.

Looking at detail of an aircraft right now as it's moving on. Don't even want to speculate if that's an aircraft that would be carrying these hostages or not. But we should find out soon.

Brian Todd, any idea how long these Americans will be kept at Brooke? Will it just be for a day or two for observation or might it be longer?

TODD: I suspect, John, that you will see them there quite a bit longer, at least a few days. I do recall back again in the '80s when several Americans were released from captivity in Lebanon, they stayed at U.S. Army facilities or U.S. military facilities for quite a long time.

They have to be debriefed by intelligence officials. They have to be thoroughly checked medically. Their dental situation has to be checked out. Again, we know that at least one of them is very likely in a serious medical condition, likely with hepatitis, Marc Gonsalves.

The other two, literally, anything could be wrong with these gentlemen, because they take these hostages we're told through forced matches in the jungle. They tie them down. And six years of that is going to take a toll.

ROBERTS: Right.

Brian, let me interrupt you for a second here because we understand that all 15 hostages are on board this aircraft. And we have a translation of the broadcast from Colombia.

So, let's listen in here for a second.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All these from the army, as well as members of the police force.

ROBERTS: The aircraft is making a turn there.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thirty meters away from the airplane, armed force of Colombia. It will open in a few minutes, where we will see the 15 people that have been held hostage for many years by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

We are assuming the first person who is going to come out we will see immediately the people who are going to be experiencing their first moments of freedom. Now imagine the state of these people as the names of many of the soldiers and policemen, they have been about 10 years in the power of the FARC. We also know Yolanda Pulecio, Ingrid's mother, is next to the chaplain.

ROBERTS: Listening here to a translation of Colombian television, as the hostages are arriving here at this airport. And again 15 hostages on board. So that would be the former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who has been held since 2002, along with the three Americans, defense contractors who were captured in 2003 when their plane went down on an anti-narcotics operation in the Colombian jungle.

And they have been held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia since that time.

As Brian Todd was mentioning, at least one of them, Marc Gonsalves, may have a serious medical condition, believed to be hepatitis. Not sure what condition the other two are in, because there really has only been -- as we watch the door of the aircraft open here, there really has only been some what are called proof of life videos of these hostages.

And let's listen in here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She is coming with boots. She has blue pants. She has an army vest. And she is hugging her mother. They're crying, a mother who for many years was waiting for the release of her daughter held hostage in the jungle for many years.

Behind her, the minister of defense, also the commander of the armed forces, as well as the air forces.

ROBERTS: And she looks in remarkably good shape for being held hostage in the jungle for six years.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... coming down of the airplane. This is a moving hug. And behind her are the remaining people coming in, Juan Carlos Lecompte, her husband, and also (INAUDIBLE) She picks up her hat.

ROBERTS: Quite an emotional reunion there, as she hugs her mother and her husband, who haven't seen them for so long.

Juan Carlos Lopez is from our CNN CNN en Espanol is with us in Washington.

And you can just see the sheer joy on the faces of all these people, Juan Carlos, family members and friends as they welcome back Ingrid Betancourt from being held in the jungle for those so many years. And she does look in remarkably good shape, doesn't she?

JUAN CARLOS LOPEZ, CNN EN ESPANOL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, she does. To her left, by the way, is her mother. In the back is the minister of defense. And I don't know, John, if you heard details. There was an interview that was released by the Colombian military with Ingrid Betancourt where she detailed how the rescue operation happened. And it's probably going to be end up being a movie, because she says that the helicopters landed.

They had been told by the rebel commanders that they were going to be moved to another place by the rebels. They saw the helicopters coming. And she says that she had a strange feeling because they were painted white and they weren't expecting the rebels to mobilize in helicopters.

She says the helicopters landed, and rebels came out of the helicopters. She even mentioned that there were some rebels wearing T-shirts with Che Guevara images and FARC uniforms and talking like FARC rebels. And they all got in the helicopters. They were tied by feet and hands. She was very scared.

And then, all of a sudden, when they were all secured in the helicopters, the military officers, the Colombian army, yelled: "This is the army. You are free."

ROBERTS: Really? So, this really was a ruse, this operation?

(CROSSTALK)

LOPEZ: And they say they secured the rebel commanders who were on board the helicopters. And that's the moment they found out they were free.

ROBERTS: Wow.

LOPEZ: That was her -- that's the way she told the story after being released. She was interviewed by a military reporter.

(CROSSTALK)

LOPEZ: And she says she never thought that she would be released and that it would happen this way, that it was a ruse. And obviously we will find -- we will hear more details from the Colombian government. But not a single shot was fired. And according to those sources, this operation had been in the planning stages for years.

There, you see her in the middle. To her right -- to her left on the scene is her mother. To the right is the minister of defense, Juan Manuel Santos. And obviously a very important day for the Colombian military. And if more details come out, if it happened this way, obviously a very good day for the Colombian armed forces.

ROBERTS: Right.

And we do know that Senator John McCain, who was down there in Colombia, on his way down to Mexico now, was briefed on this operation yesterday prior to its execution, as you said, Juan Carlos, months in the making here. Obviously, because we're watching Colombian television here, they are focusing on Ingrid Betancourt. But we are expecting that the three Americans will be coming off of that aircraft soon, Keith Stansell,Thomas Howes, Marc Gonsalves.

And again, they will be taken almost directly from this scene here to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, where Brian Todd said they will be checked out quite extensively.

Let's take a look. What are we seeing here?

LOPEZ: These are probably the first members of the Colombian armed forces. I believe it's seven members of the army, four members of the police. And they had all been rounded up, believing they were being taken to another rebel camp.

So we should see the contractors at any moment coming out of this plane. This is a military base near Bogota. And it's a military base where a lot of -- was that one of -- you see, they were preparing to leave and they were wearing fatigues, which is not usual for the rebels. They usually -- they were usually not kept in very good shape. But Ingrid Betancourt looks stronger than she did in those images that were the last proof of life.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: Yes. We see a lot of military fatigues. Ingrid Betancourt wearing them. I would assume, Juan Carlos, that the rebels had to provide them with some clothes because after six years, the clothes that they were wearing probably aren't in any shape to wear. So difficult to discern members of the military from people who are hostages.

LOPEZ: Well, probably the young -- the man with the bandana next to Ingrid, he must be one of the hostages, probably an officer of the Colombian armed forces.

And, John, Ingrid Betancourt was a presidential candidate. And after her struggle, it was well known and reported by other hostages that she had refused and resisted the rebels. So she will probably be gaining in political stature if that is her purpose, if that what she wants, if she still wants to run for the presidency. But she is a very tough and determined woman. And you can see that she's in very good health and spirits.

ROBERTS: Yes. You can just see by the smile on her face that she is extraordinarily resilient. And some of the other -- that fellow there, some of the other hostages looking somewhat haggard after their ordeal, but she looking spry and full of life and perhaps a return to politics may be in her future.

Juan Carlos, do you see any of the Americans there? I certainly don't recognize any of them, but after that long in the jungle...

LOPEZ: No, I don't. It wouldn't surprise me that they weren't -- that they were probably taken separately from the members of the Colombian forces and maybe are meeting right now with Ambassador Brownfield who is on his way to this base, the U.S. ambassador in Colombia.

But these are definitely members of the Colombian armed forces, Ingrid Betancourt, and people who weren't expecting this operation by the Colombian armed forces. And according to the Colombian government, no one was paid. There were no negotiations. It was just a ruse, and a ruse that worked very well.

ROBERTS: It certainly could be that the Americans have been taken separately to another location. However, we were led to believe by local announcements that there were 15 hostages on board. And that would account for Ingrid Betancourt, the 11 Colombians and the three Americans.

So, again, we haven't seen them.

(CROSSTALK)

LOPEZ: And since we're watching Colombia TV, they probably haven't been focusing on all the folks coming out of the airplane, or they might have gone on a different airplane from the beginning. So, these are just -- we're just trying to guess.

But, yes, these are the same police officers and army officers that we had seen in different proof of life videos. And it's obviously a very important day.

Do you see the man with the white air in the back? He was released a couple of months ago. He is a politician who was kidnapped. He was held with Ingrid Betancourt. His name is Jorge Gechem. And he spent a great deal of time with her and was released approximately I believe the last voluntary releases by FARC when there was a process where Colombia had allowed President Hugo Chavez to be the mediator with FARC.

When that process was over, I believe shortly after, he was released with other hostages. So, they are meeting with other people that spent a long, long time in the jungle. And she was saying today that every time they saw a helicopter, the first thing they had to do was run. And so seeing helicopters was not good news. But today it was eerie and it was weird seeing the helicopters coming and going. And she thought they were leaving. And the rebels explained, no, they were just on their landing path and they would be on the ground momentarily.

ROBERTS: Juan Carlos, let's take a brief pause here, because we have a gentleman who is speaking right now. Let's listen to see if we have a translation..

(CROSSTALK)

LOPEZ: Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos.

JUAN MANUEL SANTOS, COLOMBIAN MINISTER OF DEFENSE (through translator): ... operation has no precedent in the world. You know a few of the details and you are soon to know more details.

But, truly, what was carried out today by our public forces is something truly blockbuster. It was almost like a movie, the rescue in a movie that gave the freedom to 15 people that had been tortured, that had suffered during so long. We finally have them with us again and with their families.

ROBERTS: This is Juan Manuel Santos, who is the defense minister of Colombia, speaking here.

A lot of smiles, a lot of celebration here as they welcome back the hostages. Ingrid Betancourt, again, captured in February of 2002 and held in the jungle all those years. The Americans, who we have yet to see, not captured until 2003, when their plane went down on a drug interdiction mission.

They were found in the eastern part of Colombia. And, as Juan Carlos Lopez was reporting, it really was -- the commando raid was a real ruse, that they were dressed as rebels. They landed in helicopters that were not painted the typical olive drab. They were pained in white.

Let's listen here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): In February of 1998 (INAUDIBLE) took place. In August of that same year (INAUDIBLE) and (INAUDIBLE) happened.

This means that it's almost been 11 years that there are members of the military forces, as well as the police, that have been held hostage. Then others came as well.

But, from the beginning, from the first day that they were held hostage, we said they are hostage, but never forgotten, never forgotten. It has been our obsession, it has been our commitment that these people would come back safe and sound. There have been several opportunities in which they could have tried a rescue, and it was not done. It was not done because we wanted you to see them today safe and sound to the part of their homes.

This operation -- this unprecedented operation in Colombia, unprecedented in the world, in which there was an infiltration of the secretariat of the FARC in its most belligerent part, and the first squadron that had these people kidnapped.

And through this infiltration, we were able to carry out this operation in which without having fired a single shot, without a single bullet, without a single wound, absolutely everybody safe and sound, without a single scratch. And the two most important that were held hostage directly, (INAUDIBLE) of the FARC, are in this moment captured. And they will be put to serve their justice.

All of Colombia is happy today because you are back, because you came back after many years. And I want to congratulate the policemen and military men of Colombia, because thanks to everyone, they have said that they have brought freedom. These are people that were fundamentally...

ROBERTS: So, we're just listening to a local general giving the background of the story here.

Just picking up the rescue operation, the Colombian commandos arrived in two helicopters that were painted white, weren't painted like military colors. The commanders inside had disguised themselves as rebels. Some of them had even put on T-shirts of Argentinean revolutionary Che Guevara and had arrived, according -- this is all according to Ingrid Betancourt, who has done an interview on this, and said that they were rebels, that they were picking up the hostages to take them elsewhere.

Apparently, the ruse worked. The rebels handed over the hostages. They got in the air and it wasn't until they were in the air and safely away from the FARC base that they revealed themselves to be commandos of the Colombian military, so quite an elaborate ruse, one apparently months in the planning, and one, as the general was saying, came off without a hitch. Not a shot fired. No one injured. And all of these hostages who had been held so long in the Colombian jungles all looking very healthy and really despite their ordeal, apparently at least from the outside, none the worse for wear.

We expect that we are going to hear from Ingrid Betancourt in just a couple of minutes here, after the general walks us through the rest of the backstory here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): To all the soldiers of Colombia, to those men that fight daily for the happiness of the people of Colombia. We have accomplished, as I said, as the minister of defense said, we were able to infiltrate the secretariat FARC and in a clean and transparent operation, we were able to rescue the hostages, checkmate to the FARC, undeniably.

Glory forever to the intelligentsia of the military of Colombia. Glory forever to the soldiers of my army. Today, more than ever, I am incredibly proud to be the commander of the Colombian military, the words of the commander of the army.

I want to thank...

ROBERTS: So, as we wait for Ingrid Betancourt to speak, as we assume logically that she will, let's bring in our Ed Henry, who has been following this story from the White House.

Ed, President Bush has been in contact with President Uribe of Colombia today?

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Don.

In fact, you can see there's an official White House photo we have just gotten in the last few moments of President Bush congratulating President Uribe on the successful rescue operation.

We're also picking up some new information from White House officials to pick up what you have been reporting with Juan Carlos Lopez as well about this being months, actually, maybe even years in the planning. White House officials now telling us they have been working for up to five years with Colombian counterparts to try to pull all this together.

Gordon Johndroe, the spokesman at the National Security Council, saying that the White House was -- quote -- "aware of the operation in its planning stages." He says it was a Colombian-conceived and led operation, that the U.S. supported the operation and also that the U.S. did provide some backup for the Colombian officials, some specific support, in the words of Gordon Johndroe.

He will not specify, saying they are not going to give up specific operational details, obviously, but he added -- quote -- "This rescue was long in the planning and we have been working with the Colombians for five years since the hostages were taken to free them from captivity."

Also said, obviously, that the U.S. ambassador, as Juan was saying, on the ground, has been in the loop, as well as a U.S. admiral who was engaged in some of the planning of this operation. The president was informed this afternoon, we're told, about the successful rescue operation. And then he called President Uribe, as you could see in that photo -- John.

ROBERTS: Are you aware, Ed, as to whether or not the president was actually briefed before this operation happened that it was about to be undertaken?

HENRY: We're getting indications I don't think he was getting a minute by minute update. But the suggestion is that the White House has been somewhat regularly updated on how this was going.

I don't think he had a minute to minute update in those hours in the run-up to it. But it's very clear that the White House for a long time has been getting somewhat regular updates. The president last year for example was in Colombia, met with President Uribe. They obviously had a lot of discussions behind closed doors.

But Gordon Johndroe, the National Security County, spokesman saying that they were getting a lot of information, but that specifically this afternoon the president got the final word that this was successful -- John.

ROBERTS: And again interesting to note that Senator John McCain, who was meeting with President Uribe yesterday, was briefed on the upcoming mission and then was contacted when he was actually just about to take off for Mexico, the next destination on his Latin American tour, where he was told about the success of this mission.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: Is Juan Carlos Lopez still with us?

LOPEZ: I'm here.

ROBERTS: Hey, Juan Carlos, who are we listening to now? I assume that these are other hostages that have been held by the FARC rebels.

(CROSSTALK)

LOPEZ: They asked the hostages to identify themselves and to say whatever they want. So, that's how they started. They are probably going to end up with Ingrid Betancourt.

ROBERTS: And have you picked up anything on the whereabouts of the Americans at this point, Juan Carlos?

LOPEZ: No. No. But since the images we're getting are from Bogota, and they were initially sent to a military base near Bogota called (INAUDIBLE).

It is very probable that the American contractors were handed over to American authorities in that military base and they probably are initiating their flight back to the states from there. And that's why we're not seeing them in Bogota.

ROBERTS: Juan Carlos, apparently, we have got some videotape that we want to roll here as the hostages continue to -- take a look at the right-hand side of your screen as we roll this videotape.

Do we know if -- those look like they were members of the Colombian military or police, not the Americans.

(CROSSTALK)

LOPEZ: Yes. They look like the ones that were talking to the press moments ago.

I haven't seen the other contractors.

ROBERTS: Right.

LOPEZ: So, it is very probable, John, that they were handed over in (INAUDIBLE), that military base. And from there, they will probably make their trip, because I do not see them in this part of the airport in Bogota. This is in the military part of the airport.

ROBERTS: Right.

We just want to run that videotape one more time, Juan Carlos, if we could. The guy in the black T-shirt, do you know -- do you recognize him at all?

LOPEZ: No. He doesn't look like one of the contractors.

ROBERTS: Yes. No.

Well, perhaps, as I said, we were led to believe that all 15 were on board the aircraft, but perhaps they're not.

Ed Henry, let's bring you back in. Obviously, president Bush will be touting this as a huge success for Plan Colombia. The United States has offered a tremendous amount of support to the Colombian government in its battles against the FARC rebels. And there are questions, of course, now, as we look toward November, as to how that might change depending on who is elected president.

HENRY: Absolutely.

He's going to say it's a success for that plan. But I also think, looking ahead, John, something to pay attention to will be this Colombian free trade agreement that has been stalled on Capitol Hill. As you know, President Bush sees that as a legacy item. He wants to get this free trade pact through Congress. It has been stalled. Speaker Nancy Pelosi not happy about the details of it. And this has been a very contentious issue between this president and Democrats on Capitol Hill.

It has come up as an issue between Barack Obama and John McCain on the campaign trail. You have to wonder -- this is very early, but you have to wonder moving forward, all this good generated, how that might affect this free trade pact.

President Bush has been talking for months how about how President Uribe, that there is new day in Colombia. That the U.S. can now trust President Uribe. That he is a strong U.S. ally both in fighting drugs, in fighting the rebels.

But now this successful rescue operation. You do have to wonder whether any of the good feeling from this will lead to an effort to try to revive that Colombian free trade pact. Just a couple of days ago, President Bush was talking about how he wanted Congress to get that done. So that might be something also to pay attention to -- Josh.

ROBERTS: Ed, we were speaking with David Axelrod, who is the chief strategist for the Obama campaign just in our last hour here on THE SITUATION ROOM. And he reaffirmed Senator Obama's opposition to the Colombian free trade agreement.

However, he did beat back very strongly accusations by Senator John McCain that Senator Obama is unwilling to recognize the magnitude of President Uribe's struggle against the FARC. David Axelrod saying that Barack Obama is a firm supporter of Plan Colombia.

But again, this idea that the free trade agreement, the McCain campaign saying this all works together, Plan Colombia, free trade. You want to have solid relations between the two countries, it has got to be on many different levels.

What about that argument, Ed Henry? Do these things all have to work together or can Plan Colombia be separated out from a free trade agreement?

HENRY: Well, it could potentially be separated out, obviously, but this president is not going to want to negotiate it out. President Bush obviously also wants to get the free trade deal. He is going to want to make sure they're linked.

And obviously moving forward, just in my initial contact with administration officials, they are saying that they also think it will be quite interesting to see moving forward how this might affect the whole political dynamic.

Obviously the whole issue about free trade and whether or not it really is free trade is something that you have heard Barack Obama and John McCain fight out very difficult -- in a very difficult way out on the campaign trail. It's something that Democrats on Capitol Hill, now that they have power in Congress, have really been pushing back against President Bush on.

This whole series of events though and the fact that now three Americans have been freed, that the Colombian government has gone through with a successful rescue operation, you do have to wonder whether that could in fact could sort of breathe some new life into a trade pact that has been dead on Capitol Hill -- John.

ROBERTS: We should point out too, Ed, that a reporter on the ground there in Bogota has informed us that, yes, indeed, the three Americans, Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes, and Keith Stansell, were on that aircraft, did get off the aircraft, perhaps because the camera was focused so much on Ingrid Betancourt when the plane first arrived and the hostages started disembarking the plane, we missed the picture of them, but apparently they are there at the airport.

Ingrid Betancourt just on a cell phone right now, talking either to a friend or a loved one about her dramatic return here. As we listen to the other 11 hostages expressing their thanks and how happy they are, obviously, to be released.

Ingrid Betancourt, of course, a former member of the Colombian government. She was a presidential candidate. And in February of 2002, captured by the rebels and held for ransom.

And is she moving toward the -- let's listen in now as she moves toward the microphone.

INGRID BETANCOURT, FMR. FARC HOSTAGE, FMR. COLOMBIAN PRES. CANDIDATE (through translator): Well, I can speak because I am very, very moved. Please join me to thank God, to the Virgin Mary. I prayed a lot. I imagine this moment very often with my mom, you don't have to cry anymore.

To God first. Second, to all of you who were with me. For your prayers that thought about me. That had me in their hearts, even if only for a minute. That maybe felt compassion for us, the hostages. That helped us to live in your life. That rejected that the only solution was to wait. To all of you Colombians.

For all of you French who have been with us. That accompanied us in the world. That helped us to remain alive. That helped the world to know what was going on. Thank you.

Thank you to the army, the military of my country, Colombia. Thank you for its impeccable operation. The operation was perfect. The operation, the military operation of the army of my country, of Colombia, was a perfect operation. This morning when I woke up, I prayed the rosary at 4:00 a.m. and I committed myself to God. And we were all having the expectations that maybe one much us one day maybe could be liberated by an international committee that you, the media had talked about.

I owe a lot to the media. If it had not been for you, I probably would not be alive. Those of you who took your time to put us on radio air, to communicate with our families, I owe you so much.

We were able to dream. We were able to keep hope alive because we heard our loved ones. My mother during seven years at 5:00 a.m., my children, all of those who I love. The Colombia media, this is also your victory.

This morning at 5:00 a.m., I heard my mother. I was going to take -- she was going to take an airplane to France. I heard my daughter Melanie (ph), who said was going to china. I heard my ex- husband, who I love, Hapapui (ph), who is the father of my children, who said there was a picture of me in a summit in Mont Blanc, in France.

And I thought, well, maybe there's nothing. Maybe this is not my turn. Later, they made us pack all of our equipment. We were waiting all day long. We did not know what was going to happen.

And an hour before the helicopters are going to arrive, the commander, (INAUDIBLE) said to me that all of us were going to board an airplane and that they were going to take us -- they were not sure where but it was to speak with one of the commanders.

And so I asked him who? Was it Alfonso Cano? Or if it was Mono Jojoy? And he said that maybe. That they didn't have any details but it was someone very important. And that from there they would transfer us somewhere else to have us into another captivity situation. And there we were excited.

But I also had -- but at the same time my heart broke because I did not want another transfer. I did not want another time in captivity. But we heard the helicopters and I looked up to the sky and I thought, that's so curious that I can finally be excited to hear a helicopter.

Because for seven years, every time I heard a helicopter, my pulse would race. I would be scared. I would have to take my equipment, run, hide. These are white helicopters. I felt that it was exciting. They made us cross the river.

We arrived to a spot. All of us with a guard -- with a guerilla guard with an armed guerilla man next to me. I had a woman next to me, who just kept -- was very harsh. Move, hurry up, fast, as always.

When the helicopters arrived, there were these characters that walked out, absolutely surreal. Some men who were dressed with these logos and these things that certified them to be delegates of who knows what. And I would look at them and I thought, who are these people? What international committee is this? What international committee could this be? And I thought, I wonder if they're going to put us in as clowns in another circus. I do not want to lend myself to that.

So they spoke with the commander Enrique (ph) and the commander Cesar. I looked a little bit close and I saw that they had shirts with a Che Guevara. And I thought, this is FARC. This is -- I didn't think, this is not a health brigade. This is nothing.

And after they told us that we could board the helicopter, but that we needed to go in with our hands tied, and that was extremely humiliating. And the men, who were my friends of misfortune that had been my friends, the military members and the policemen that had been with me during these last seven years, that I owe so much too.

Particularly to William Perez (ph), who was my nurse in moments when I was very ill, to him I want to give him special recognition because I would not be here if it wasn't for him, just like I would not be here if wasn't for all the commanders that the Army that had the bravado and the bravery to plan this extraordinary operation, Operation Emmanuel (ph).

For his audacity, to the president, Uribe, who knew exactly how to play his cards well for us. Thank you. Thank you to Colombia, because we are proud Colombians.

I ask Colombia to believe in this army of mine, of ours, that is going to bring us to peace. And when we loaded the helicopter, very frustrated, because of course we were handcuffed, I did not even want to speak with the people who were there. They were trying to help me with the equipment. And I didn't want them to help me with the equipment.

We were very indignant, very humiliated, very angry. And we boarded the helicopter, they told us to put on these white vests because we were going through cold weather. And I said, I will not wear that.

And they closed the helicopter doors. The helicopter started flying. And suddenly, there was something that happened. I don't know what happened exactly. I'm not sure. But suddenly I saw the commander that during so many years, four years, was at the head of our team that so many times was so cruel and humiliated me so much and such a despot, and I saw him on the floor, naked, with bound eyes.

I was not happy. I was -- I had a lot of pity. But I was thankful that -- to be with people that would respect the life of those around them, even if enemy lives. The chief of operations said, we are the national army and you are all free.

And the helicopter almost fell because we started jumping. We screamed, we cried, we hugged. We couldn't believe it. God carried out this miracle. This is a miracle. This is a miracle that I want to share with all of you. Because I know that all of you suffered with my family, with my children, with me.

This is a moment of pride for all of us Colombians. There is no historical precedent for such a perfect operation. Maybe the Israelis, in the history of Israel that fame of those operations that are so perfect. Maybe those can compare a little bit to what happened today.

I don't know if at this monument Mono Jojoy or Alfonso Cano, leaders of the FARC even know what happened. Maybe they're just finding out now. But what can I tell them now is that the people that are still there, those who are still held hostage, that the guerilla men who were our guards, we left them alive.

And God willing, they will remain alive. Because I hope that they will not be held accountable by the FARC. It was not their fault. The operation was perfect. I ask God that this will allow us Colombians to think and consider that peace is possible.

I've had the possibility -- I've had the possibility of leading the country today. And today, they led us to victory. Thank you, Colombia. Thank you, France. Thank you. Thank you, France. All the Colombians know that we have brothers on the other side of the Atlantic, the French brothers.

All Colombians who come to France will know that they are welcome because France welcomed us, protected us, fought for us, wore the shirts of all of the hostages in Colombia. And I know that with President Sarkozy and with all of the Frenchmen and all of the friend in all of Europe and all of the world that have supported us, we will continue fighting for the liberty of those who remain in captivity, because we have to take out and we have to bring out those who are still there.

And God willing, it will be through negotiation. But if not, let's have trust in our armed forces. And right now I want to think of those -- I'm also thinking of those who will never come. That this moment of happiness will not help us forget that it's a miracle.

That others died. I think of the deputies in the state of Valle and the victims of (INAUDIBLE), and all of the hostages that have died at the hands of the guerillas. So many strangers and so many foreigners and so many children and pregnant women, elders, grandfathers, grandmothers, all of those who have been held captive in Colombia, we will bring you out.

The peace has to come with the commitment that there will be no more kidnapping, not only those in a humanitarian exchange of a humanitarian accord, even those who are there for economic and financial rescue.

The unity of Colombians, that national unity will bring us and will help all to come back safe and sound. Thank you.

ROBERTS: And there you hear quite a tale she had to tell of that dramatic rescue that occurred earlier today. Ingrid Betancourt, who was captured in February of 2002. She campaigned for the presidency of Colombia in an area she had been warned not to go into. An area of high guerilla activity. Held captive for 2,321 days. And as she tells this story, I mean, the deception was complete. It was a ruse by the Colombian military. Came down in white helicopters. Not helicopters painted in the military green. They were wearing clothes to make them look like rebels. Some were even wearing T-shirts with the image of Argentinean revolutionary Che Guevara on it.

They tied the hostages, told them to get on the helicopters. Ingrid Betancourt saying that she didn't see anything possibly military about them. She indeed thought that they were FARC. She didn't want them to touch her, she felt humiliated by it. And then as they got in the air the commander revealed that his group was in fact commandos from the Colombian military.

And interesting to note as well, that she had some sympathy for her captors. Saying that she hopes that the guards who were duped by this ruse do not suffer at the hands of the FARC commanders because it really wasn't their fault. The deception was good. They couldn't do anything but believe, in fact, that these were other FARC rebels who had come to take these hostages away.

So we see Ingrid Betancourt there, former presidential candidate, former member of the Colombian senate. Also talking about France, because she did go to private school in France. Though she was born in Bogota, she went to private school in France and that's where she got French citizenship. And the government of France for years has been heavily involved in trying to win her release.

And we see there on the lower left-hand corner of the wall there in THE SITUATION ROOM, Thomas Howes, Marc Gonsalves, and Keith Stansell. There are the three American military contractors who have been held hostage along with Ingrid Betancourt and the 11 members of the Colombian military and police who were also captured.

We are told by reporters on the ground that they indeed were on that aircraft when it pulled up. They disembarked the aircraft. However, we do not see them among the crowd there, and they certainly have not come forward to the microphone to talk.

Our understanding is that they will soon be on an aircraft, if not already, bound for the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, a place that you may remember is familiar because of the number badly wounded American soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan who go there for long-term care.

And they will go there to be checked out. Marc Gonsalves may be in ill health. He may have a case of hepatitis. They'll obviously need some medical care. As well, the Brooke Army Medical Center has a full facility to investigate tropical diseases. The military figures that that is the best place to take them.

We have not seen them yet. Obviously we have people who are headed to the Brooke Army Medical Center there in San Antonio to try to follow them when they get on the ground, to talk to some of their family members as well. But obviously just enormous gratitude to the Colombian military there today. Thankfulness, finally being released after so many years being held by the FARC rebels in the jungle. Just an incredible scene. Let's bring in our Juan Carlos Lopez who is with us.

And, Juan Carlos, obviously this is an amazing scene there in Colombia. And we heard from Ingrid Betancourt saying that she hopes this could lead to some sort of peace. Is there any hope that that could happen when you look at the viciousness of the FARC rebels over these years?

JUAN CARLOS LOPEZ, CNN EN ESPANOL ANCHOR: Well, the FARC, John, as vicious as they are, have been heavily debilitated by the Colombian army, but different military operations. And they have lost very important commanders this year. One died in a raid on a FARC camp that was installed in the Ecuadorian side of the Colombian-Ecuadorian border.

That was -- creating a big rift between those governments. It involved the government of Venezuela. But they lost one of their top commanders. A couple of weeks later, other rebels killed one of their commanders for ransom. And then their top leader, Tirofijo, the oldest rebel in the group, the head of the group, died from natural causes.

So they are debilitated. They have rebels who are deserting. The Colombian army has doubled in size, has received very, very important support. So there might be room for negotiations.

Now, what experts who follow Colombia say is that even though FARC is debilitated, it is not easily going to disappear. So it will probably -- might force a process. There is a new leader of FARC.

But there is, John, a -- well, she was talking about France and about President Sarkozy. There is a plane that is leaving Paris with her children. And it's on its way to Bogota with her relatives living in France to meet up with Ingrid Betancourt and it was the French government that worked with her mother, with other governments, the government of Venezuela who was involved in seeking sort of her release.

Governments all over the world were working. And there were moments of tension between her mother and the Colombian government because she felt the Colombian government wasn't moving fast enough.

But obviously those moments of tension are gone and her gratitude to the armed forces and to the Colombian government. And so President Uribe, who is going through a very difficult political moment, the timing of this is interesting, John, the fact that Senator John McCain was in Colombia while this happened, the fact the government is going through a very difficult political moment, and now they have this story.

Just as an interesting fact, President Uribe has an approval rating of about 80 percent. So after this I imagine it could go even higher. ROBERTS: Yes. But as we've seen with the approval ratings, they can sort of change with the wind. Juan Carlos Lopez from CNN EN ESPANOL for us out of Washington.

And we're going to leave this scene for the moment. There's a lot more news to pass along to you, but just an incredible moment there, that military base in Bogota, Colombia, as Ingrid Betancourt, three American hostages and 11 other Colombian hostages, welcomed back after years in the jungle. We'll be back on THE SITUATION ROOM right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: To other news now in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'm John Roberts in for Wolf Blitzer. A deadly rampage down one of Jerusalem's busiest streets by a Palestinian man who commandeered a massive construction vehicle. It happened right outside of our bureau there on Jaffa Street. CNN's Ben Wedeman has got the latest for us -- Ben.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SR. JERUSALEM CORRESPONDENT: Just before noon, it was a scene of utter pandemonium, as a bulldozer, driven by a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem, made its way, hitting one car and bus after another, just below the CNN bureau.

I came running down here. It was utter chaos, John. What we saw were people lying in the street, wounded, a bus behind me, knocked over on its side. Shortly after that, another car that had been hit repeatedly apparently by the bulldozer. There was a woman dead in the front. She'd had a baby in a baby seat in the back. The baby was pulled out, injured, but the mother was dead.

And just moments later, I heard gunshots as Israeli police went up, climbed into the -- up to the cab of the bulldozer and shot the driver at point blank range. At this point, Israeli police are saying that this incident was unplanned and spontaneous.

They're describing it as a terrorist incident, but at this point, the details really aren't clear exactly what were the motives of the man who went on this rampage here today -- John.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS: Ben Wedeman in Jerusalem for us with the latest.

Our Carol Costello monitoring stories incoming to THE SITUATION ROOM right now. She joins us.

Carol, what have you got?

COSTELLO: John, a fugitive hedge fund manager is no longer on the lam. Sam Israel was sentenced to 20 years in prison after being convicted of swindling investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars. He went missing last month on the day he was supposed to report to federal prison. And then he faked suicide. Police say he turned himself in this morning at Southwick, Massachusetts.

More turbulence in the airline industry. The world's largest airline warns 900 junior flight attendants could be out of a job starting at the end of August. American Airlines says it's not a layoff notice but a legally required notice for possible layoffs. American Airlines blames crippling jet fuel prices and a weak U.S. economy.

Gather yourself and your family quickly and get out. That warning to people in two California counties as wildfires race their way. Evacuation orders involve Monterey County and the Big Sur region, and Shasta in the north. They are just two of many areas threatened to be -- threatened by over 1,400 fires burning across California that has put more than 8,000 homes at risk.

And he's royal, wealthy and world famous, but criminals beware, Prince William helped bust up a drug smuggling operation in the Atlantic Ocean. It happened on Saturday. The prince doing a stint in the Royal Navy helped spot a suspicious boat in waters near Barbados with his crew members. They alerted other forces who chased the boat and boarded it. Those forces found one ton of cocaine with a street value of $80 million. Back to you, John.

ROBERTS: Carol, new information coming into THE SITUATION ROOM after the dramatic rescue in the South American jungles of three American hostages and a former Colombian presidential candidate. We'll have that for you just as soon as we come back.

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ROBERTS: Reaction coming in from across the country on the liberation of three American hostages held in Colombia by FARC rebels for five years. Our Abbi Tatton has got that for us now -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: John, there is something that has just been updated with the words "freed, not forgotten." this is the Northrop Grumman Web site, the employer of the three Americans who are free today with a statement here.

"Northrop Grumman is extremely pleased to confirm the long- awaited news that all three of its employees, Thomas Howes, Marc Gonsalves, and Keith Stansell have been safely freed." They say they're waiting for their safe return to the United States -- John.

ROBERTS: Abbi Tatton for us. And we're understanding -- we're getting new information here that apparently U.S. intelligence worked in cooperation with Colombian authorities providing the location of the hostages. We're going to have more on this all night long on CNN so stay with us. Right now, it's time for "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT."