Colombia's military rescued 15 hostages, including three U.S. government contractors, from leftist revolutionary captors who had imprisoned the group in jungle camps for more than five years.
The contractors returned to the United States aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III transport jet, which delivered them to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, shortly before midnight, July 2nd.
Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell -- all employees of the Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp. -- were captured in February 2003 after their single-engine drug-surveillance plane crashed in the jungles of southern Colombia. They spent five years in captivity, the longest period of captivity for any American hostages.
The freed men are undergoing medical evaluations at Brooke Army Medical Center, in San Antonio, as part of a voluntary Defense Department reintegration process designed to ease transition back to normalcy following their time in captivity.
Despite the cruel and Spartan environments the hostages endured, preliminary assessments indicate the men are in good condition both physically and mentally, a senior military officer and medical staff said today during a news conference at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
“I will tell you that they greeted me with a strong handshake and clear eyes and an incredible smile,” said Army Maj. Gen. Keith M. Huber, commander of U.S. Army South, describing his meeting with the men last night at Lackland.
Stansell, who met with his wife and two children today, was the first freed hostage to be reunited with family members, said Huber, who served as Stansell’s escort.
“On the tail end of their first private reunion in five years and five months, I can tell you that it made us all very proud, that there were children there who were thrilled to see their parents, and there were parents there who were overwhelmed with seeing their son back safe,” Huber said. “At the human dimension level, that’s what we’re all here for.”
Gonsalves and Howes are expected to meet with some members of their families later today, Huber said. He added that the three newly liberated men are receptive to the possibilities of talking with media members in the near future and to participating in a yellow ribbon ceremony to commemorate their return, which could occur within the next several days.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a statement, welcomed home the rescued American hostages.
“We are delighted with the safe recovery of these Americans after more than five years of captivity,” she said.
“We commend the government of Colombia for its sustained efforts to secure the safe return of all FARC hostages,” she added, using the Spanish acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia captors. The United States has considered FARC a terrorist organization since November 2001.
"The United States calls on the FARC to release immediately all remaining hostages so they may be returned safely to their families," Rice continued. "We hold the FARC responsible for the health and well-being of all hostages. Our thoughts and prayers remain with those still held by the FARC and their loved ones."
The rescue mission took place in Guaviare province, a jungle region in south-central Colombia, where commandos deceived a rebel unit into handing over the hostages, according to news reports.
By late afternoon, the prisoners, who included former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, were flown to the main military air base in the Colombian capital of Bogota.
President Bush said he congratulated Colombian President Álvaro Uribe when the two leaders spoke yesterday.
“I asked him to congratulate his military and those who had planned it,” Bush told reporters today. “And I told him what a joyous occasion it must be to know that the plan had worked, that people who were unjustly held were now free to be with their families.
“I'm proud of our relationship with Colombia, and I'm proud of my friend President Uribe,” he continued. “I appreciate his courage and his strong leadership and the successful operations they waged.”
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the operation was planned, led and executed by Colombia.
Asked today if the United States played a role in the mission, Whitman said only that the two countries’ militaries have a strong relationship that includes “a certain amount of cooperation and information sharing.”