15 Hostages Rescued in Colombia

Patrons of the Laurels Billiard Club in Medellin, Colombia, sat engrossed by television coverage of the rescue of 15 hostages from FARC captivity. Upstairs from the bar are the offices of the Mothers of the Candelaria, a support group for families of missing people in Colombia's long-running civil war. For volunteer Luis Alfonso Quiros, the story of the rescue hit home. Video by Travis Fox/washingtonpost.com
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 3, 2008

Colombia's military yesterday rescued the most prominent of several hundred hostages held by Marxist rebels, a group of 15 that included the French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three American Defense Department contractors who had been imprisoned in remote jungle camps since 2003.

In what Colombian officials called an elaborate ruse, commandos deceived a rebel unit entrusted with the prized hostages into turning them over in a grassy field deep in southeastern Guaviare province. The prisoners, who included 11 Colombian soldiers, were then flown to freedom in what amounted to a powerful blow to a fast-waning insurgency.

By late afternoon, the hostages were transported to the main military air base in Bogota, the Colombian capital, where they were reunited with relatives as a military band played the national anthem.

Betancourt, wearing a floppy jungle hat, the kind of flimsy rubber boots worn by guerrillas, and a white flower in her braided hair, stepped off a plane and into the waiting arms of her mother, Yolanda Pulecio. She then addressed well-wishers in comments carried on national television, praising Colombia's military for "an impeccable operation."

"God, this is a miracle. Such a perfect operation is unprecedented," said Betancourt, 46, an author and former presidential candidate taken prisoner by rebels in 2002.

Betancourt and the Americans -- who were believed to have been held longer than any other U.S. citizens currently in captivity in the world -- were among the hostages that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, hoped to trade for hundreds of their imprisoned comrades. Using Colombia's vast and rugged terrain to its advantage, the FARC has for years taken its prisoners deep into the jungle and threatened to kill them if the military attempted a rescue.

Shortly after midnight this morning, the Americans arrived in San Antonio aboard a U.S. military plane. Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves -- employees of Northrop Grumman Corp. -- were to undergo medical exams at the Brooke Army Medical Center and be reunited with their families. The FARC took them hostage after their surveillance plane crashed in rebel territory.

George Gonsalves, father of Marc Gonsalves, said he had been on the front lawn of his home in Connecticut when his next-door neighbor came rushing out of her kitchen door, waving her arms to tell her about the news she had just seen on television.

"We went dashing back to the house, and there it was on CNN," he said. "It's just wonderful, just wonderful."

A breathless Lynne Stansell, Keith Stansell's mother, said by phone that her family was overwhelmed by the early reports.

"Some people are coming to help us handle this," she said, when reached by phone at her Florida home. "We can't really react right now. It's just all too emotional."

The news was also greeted with relief and amazement in France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had campaigned vigorously for Betancourt's release, declared the "end of an ordeal that lasted for more than six years." Halfway around the world, in the Colombian city of Medellin, television coverage was nonstop.

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