Image: Lorenzo Delloye, Melanie Delloye
Thibault Camus  /  AP
Ingrid Betancourt's children, Lorenzo Delloye and Melanie Delloye, at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, on Wednesday. French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy says Betancourt was in "good health" after being freed in Colombia.
updated 7/2/2008 9:45:01 PM ET 2008-07-03T01:45:01

For Ingrid Betancourt's children, her release Wednesday after being held hostage for six years in the Colombian jungle filled an immeasurable void they had lived with as they grew into adulthood.

Her daughter, Melanie, was breathless as she spoke to reporters in the French presidential palace Wednesday night, her voice trembling with emotion.

"Merci, merci," she said. She was 16 when her mother was seized.

"It's hard to find words," added her brother, Lorenzo Delloye, his cheeks ruddy with excitement. Lorenzo, who was 13 when she was taken hostage, thanked "the entire world" for his mother's freedom.

"We won a fight for liberty," he said. "It's the best moment of my life."

A Colombian army operation freeing the French-Colombian Betancourt, three American defense contractors and 11 other hostages elicited cheers, tears of joy and relief across France, where French President Nicolas Sarkozy and thousands of supporters had campaigned for her release.

Her children, who live in France, were heading to Bogota on Wednesday to be reunited with her — their first meeting since she was kidnapped by rebels in 2002 while campaigning for Colombia's presidency.

'Big success'
While Sarkozy spoke alongside them, Melanie tenderly ran a finger down Lorenzo's cheek, and the two held hands. She urged that other hostages still in the jungles not be forgotten.

The release was a major boost for Sarkozy, who made freeing Betancourt a priority the night he was elected president in 2007. He hailed the release operation as a "big success."

Sarkozy urged the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to stop "this absurd and medieval conflict" with the Colombian government. He said France was ready to offer asylum to FARC fighters who renounce violence.

Leaders across the world welcomed the news of Betancourt's release and called on the FARC to release the remaining hostages, believed to number around 700.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on the "FARC to immediately and unconditionally release the remaining hostages, whose security is their responsibility," according to a statement from Ban's office.

At the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI's spokesman, The Rev. Federico Lombardi, told The Associated Press that the Vatican hopes the release will be the start of a pacification process for Colombia.

In Washington, Human Rights Watch commended Colombian security forces for carrying out the operation without civilian casualties and called on FARC rebels to release the remaining hostages.

EU Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner said she was "extremely relieved and very happy... At the same time our hearts go out to those who remain in captivity. Ingrid Betancourt's fate has shed a harsh light on the cruel and inhumane conditions in which they are being held."

European Parliament member Richard Howitt, who has campaigned for a prisoner exchange in Colombia and has visited FARC-held territory, hailed her release as vindication of her supporters' efforts across two continents.

In a statement, he added, "It is essential that Europe and the world does not lose interest in the hundreds of Colombians who remain missing in what remains the world's worst hostage crisis."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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