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Hostages Freed in Colombia Are Reunited With Families

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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

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By Travis Fox and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 4, 2008

BOGOTA, Colombia, July 3 -- On their first full day of freedom, the hostages rescued from guerrilla captivity in Colombia were reunited with relatives, as new details emerged Thursday about their captors and the conditions under which they were held.

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Ingrid Betancourt, a onetime presidential candidate and the best known of the 15 hostages rescued, embraced her two grown children for the first time since she was kidnapped six years ago. In a poignant scene after the pair arrived in Bogota aboard a plane from Paris, she rushed up the stairs to greet them, apparently unwilling to wait for them to disembark.

"Nirvana, paradise -- that must be very similar to what I feel at this moment," Betancourt told reporters after hugging her daughter, Melanie, 22, and her son, Lorenzo, 19.

The three American defense contractors who were freed in Colombia's southeastern Guaviare province arrived late Wednesday in San Antonio, Tex., where they were admitted to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston. They did not make a public appearance or issue any statements.

U.S. military officials said the men -- Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves -- showed remarkable resilience and appeared to be in good physical and psychological condition. The conditions they endured during their five-year captivity, however, "were very cruel and very spartan," Maj. Gen. Keith Huber, commander of U.S. Army South at Fort Sam Houston, told reporters.

Huber said Stansell had a private reunion with his son, daughter and parents at the commanding general's headquarters before being escorted back to the hospital. The family members were "thrilled" and "overwhelmed" to see Stansell back safe, the general said, adding, "It was quite humbling."

Relatives of Howes and Gonsalves were en route to the post for reunions with the men, Huber said. The three are expected to remain at Fort Sam Houston for two to four days.

In Colombia, television coverage alternated between images of the Betancourt reunion and a boisterous rally at the Defense Ministry. At the rally, a band welcomed back the 11 Colombian army soldiers and police officers who had been rescued.

The former captives, dressed in fatigues, stood on a balcony and spoke to a crowd assembled below. They waved and, at one point, linked hands and yelled in Spanish, "Hip, hip hooray for the Colombian army!"

"Some foreign military analysts said this [operation] could have only been done by the best of the best in the world," Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said. "And we are the best in the world!"

In what Colombian officials called an elaborate ruse, army commandos deceived a rebel unit entrusted with the prized hostages into turning them over in a grassy field. The rescue operation further strengthened the government's hand in its four-decade battle with the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

"The guerrillas feel more and more defeated and demoralized. I can say that 70 percent of them are bored with their life," said Juan Carlos Bermeo, one of the freed soldiers.


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