Rescued Hostages Express Gratitude

One of three American hostages freed last week from Colombia rebels denounced the group as 'terrorists with a capital 'T.' Video by AP
By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Three American defense contractors expressed public gratitude yesterday for their rescue from rebels in Colombia last week and urged Americans not to forget hundreds of Colombians still held hostage in punishing conditions.

One of the former captives, Marc Gonsalves, 36, of Bristol, Conn., called the rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, "terrorists with a capital T" and described abusive conditions that he said have caused even some of the organization's own guerrillas to kill themselves.

Addressing the FARC, Gonsalves said: "Don't tell us you are not terrorists. Show us that you're not terrorists. Let those other hostages come home."

Speaking publicly for the first time since their rescue last Wednesday by Colombian military intelligence agents posing as rebels and humanitarian workers, Gonsalves and two other former hostages -- Thomas Howes, 55, and Keith Stansell, 43 -- appeared on a stage with family members at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, where doctors pronounced them in good physical and psychological condition.

In addition to the government and armed forces of the United States and Colombia, the men thanked their employer, Northrop Grumman, for taking care of their families and the news media for keeping alive the story of their captivity.

Gonsalves, Howes and Stansell were seized in February 2003 when their plane crashed in FARC-held jungle territory while they were conducting an aerial surveillance mission as part of an anti-drug program overseen by the U.S. military. The plane's American pilot, Thomas J. Janis, and a Colombian military intelligence officer were separated from the group and shot to death by their FARC captors.

The three survivors were freed along with a dozen Colombians, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, when the Colombian military tricked the FARC rebels into turning the hostages over for a purported trip to meet with the FARC's leader in a remote jungle stronghold. After landing in a white-painted helicopter and taking off with the hostages, the Colombian agents overpowered two FARC rebels accompanying them and announced to the group that they had been rescued.

Howes yesterday described the operation as "spectacular," and Gonsalves called it "the most perfect rescue that has ever been executed in the history of the world."

Stansell, a Florida resident who appeared with several relatives, said his family "sustained me through the most difficult ordeal of my life" and "kept me alive." He added a message to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist: "I don't have a driver's license. How am I going to get home?"

"Almost 5 1/2 years ago, we fell off the edge of the earth," Howes said. "We're doing well, but we cannot forget those we left behind in captivity."

Gonsalves, who did most of the talking at the session, highlighted the plight of the remaining hostages. "Right now they're being punished because we got rescued successfully," he said. He said hostages will be forced to march through the jungle wearing heavy backpacks while guerrillas with automatic weapons lead them by chains around their necks like dogs.

Gonsalves said the rebels "hide behind" revolutionary rhetoric and "use it to justify their criminal activities," including drug trafficking, extortion and kidnapping. He said he has seen the rebels "hold a newborn baby in captivity" who needed medical attention.

"We have been victims of their hate, of their abuse and of their torture," he said in a statement that he also read in Spanish. "I have seen how even their own guerrillas commit suicide in a desperate attempt to escape the slavery that the FARC has condemned them to."

Young Colombians whom he described as "children," many of them illiterate, are "brainwashed" into joining the group and believing in its cause, Gonsalves said. "But once they join, they can never leave, because if they try, they will be killed."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company