THE freeing of hostages - whether in bank hold-ups or military situations - is never easy; there is always the risk that the hostages themselves will be at risk while the effort to release them is taking place. Against that background the successful liberation of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages of the Colombian Marxist rebel organisation FARC was a triumph.
Betancourt and the three US defence contractors who were also freed were FARC's most valuable hostages in terms of extracting concessions from the Colombian government; she was fighting a presidential campaign in 2002 when she was kidnapped and her part-French nationality has meant that the campaign for her release has also attracted international support. The ruse by which the FARC commander in charge of holding Betancourt was persuaded that she should be moved by helicopter to another location was the stuff of fiction. When the plane was airborne Betancourt and her fellow hostages were told that their aircrew and guards were members of the Colombian armed services - and that they were free. Whether this high drama will be the beginning of the end of FARC's threat to Colombian stability cannot yet be judged, but after early public approval of its opposition to corrupt government it has lost support more recently. Its activities have increasingly focussed on taking hostages to use as bargaining chips for the release of its followers now held in Colombian jails. The government's effective action, with US backing, may now move FARC further to the margins.