3 hostages rescued in Colombia return to US

Published 7:10 pm Thursday, July 3, 2008

With little fanfare, three American hostages rescued from leftist guerillas in Colombia returned safely to the United States, more than five years after their plane went down in rebel-held jungle.

The men didn’t wave to reporters or bend down to kiss the ground upon their return late Wednesday. They simply boarded waiting helicopters, which took them to a hospital where they were expected to reunite with their families.

The U.S. military contractors — Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell — had been held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia since their drug-surveillance plane went down in the jungle in February 2003. Nowhere in the world have American hostages currently in captivity been held longer, according to the U.S. Embassy in Bogota.

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The three were rescued when Colombian spies tricked leftist rebels into handing them over along with kidnapped presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. She was also freed Wednesday, as were 11 Colombian police and soldiers.

A plane carrying the Americans landed at Lackland Air Force Base shortly after 11 p.m. All appeared well as they exited the Air Force C-17. The men were then flown by choppers to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where they were expected to undergo tests.

Long before their rescue, it seemed like any public efforts to rescue the hostages had disappeared.

While France exhorted the world to care about the plight of Betancourt, and even sent a humanitarian mission in a failed rescue attempt this year, the U.S. government remained nearly silent about efforts to free the Americans, employees of a Northrop Grumman Corp. subsidiary that has supported Colombia’s fight against drugs and rebels.

Howes is a native of Chatham, Mass.; Gonsalves’ father lives in Hebron, Conn.; and Stansell’s family lives in Miami.

Their families complained publicly about what seemed to be the U.S. government’s failure to act.

“We didn’t know what the heck was going on,” Gonsalves’ father, George, told reporters. “I’m getting information from you guys.”

The Americans’ fate seemed particularly grim after “proof-of-life” images released in November showed them appearing haggard, even haunted, against a deep jungle background.

The contractors and Betancourt were among a group of rebel-designated “political prisoners” whom the FARC planned to release only in exchange for hundreds of imprisoned rebels. But every attempt at talking about a prisoner swap seemed to go nowhere.

Behind the scenes, however, Colombia’s armed forces were closing in on the rebels, with the help of billions of dollars in U.S. military support.

The U.S. and Colombian governments learned the hostages’ location “any number of times” and planned several rescue missions during their five years in captivity, but the difficulty of extracting them alive had prevented the missions from being carried out, according to a U.S. government official in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of intelligence matters.

Last month, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said soldiers had spotted the three men in the southern jungles, but they disappeared into the forest before the troops could attempt a rescue.

After the men were freed, U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield said U.S. and Colombian forces cooperated closely on the rescue mission, including sharing intelligence, equipment, training advice and operational experience.

The Americans appeared healthy in a video shown on Colombian television, though Brownfield, who met with them at a Colombian military base, said two of the three were suffering from the jungle malady leishmaniasis and “looking forward to modern medical treatment.”

George Gonsalves was mowing his yard when an excited neighbor relayed the news he had seen on television.

“I didn’t know how to stop my lawnmower,” he said. “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it.”

“We’re still teary-eyed and not quite have our wits about us,” said Stansell’s stepmother, Lynne.

And Howes’ niece, Amanda Howes, said the rescue “redefines the word miracle.”

Congratulations poured in to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe from President Bush and both presidential candidates. Republican Sen. John McCain said Uribe had told him in advance of the rescue plans while he was campaigning in Colombia. “It’s a very high-risk operation,” he said. “I congratulate President Uribe, the military and the nation of Colombia.”

Democrat Barack Obama also sent his congratulations, saying he supports “Colombia’s steady strategy of making no concessions to the FARC, and its targeted use of intelligence, military, law enforcement, diplomatic and political power to achieve important victories against terrorism.”

Gonsalves’ father, who later got a phone call from the FBI confirming his son was free, expected an emotional family reunion, especially for his son’s three children, now teenagers. “Think about your children if they don’t see you for a week a weekend or a month,” he said. “It’s five years pulled out of your life.”