New FARC Videos Show U.S. Defense Contractors

Three U.S. defense contractors are among hostages held by Colombian rebels, according to newly seized videos released by officials Friday.

The images are the first in years to prove the captives may be alive.

The American hostages — Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves — were abducted by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC, after their surveillance plane went down in a southern Colombia jungle in 2003. Images hadn't been seen of them since.

Former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt is also among the rebel-held hostages. She was seized in 2002; images of her hadn't been seen since 2003.

The tapes were seized during the arrest Thursday in Colombia's capital Bogota of three suspected urban members of FARC, Luis Carlos Restrepo, the government's peace commissioner, said.

He said the five tapes also showed images of 12 Colombians, mainly police officers and soldiers.

Letters apparently written by the hostages, including what appeared to be the will of U.S. contractor Howes, were also recovered. Most of the letters were addressed to relatives. The government didn't reveal their contents.

The videos were apparently recorded as recently as late October, Restrepo said.

The FARC, which uses kidnapping as a tool to raise money and pressure the government, is offering to release these and other high-profile hostages in exchange for the freeing of hundreds of rebels from Colombian and U.S. prisons.

The U.S., French and Colombian governments had demanded evidence the captives were alive during Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's ill-fated mediation effort to win the release of 45 high-profile hostages.

The FARC never delivered the material, and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe abruptly ended the Venezuelan leader's mediation role last week, saying Chavez had overstepped his bounds by directly contacting the head of Colombia's army.

The videos gave relatives rare consolation, and some called on Uribe to reconcile with Chavez and restart the talks.

"Please start the dialogue. I'm begging you," said Yolanda Pulecio, mother of former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. "I had the feeling that Ingrid was alive, but I also knew the conditions" of her captivity.

The videotapes, which were played at a news conference without sound, showed an extremely gaunt Betancourt, a dual French national seized while campaigning in 2002, apparently chained and in front of a jungle backdrop.

Betancourt, who has long hair and stares blankly at the ground, has become a cause celebre in France and that country's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, called the video "undeniable" evidence that Betancourt "is alive."

"This encourages us to boost our efforts to win her release," he said.

Images of American hostages Howes, Stansell and Gonsalves briefly show each standing alone on the screen (also against a jungle backdrop) looking haggard.

The Colombian government said the tapes of Betancourt carried the time stamp of Oct. 24, 2007. The tape of the Americans carried the date of Jan. 1, 2007.

In justifying its decision to end Chavez's role as mediator, the Colombian government said the FARC had failed to respond to the Venezuelan president's entreaties for proof the hostages were alive.

Chavez's dismissal from the process has raised tensions between the two countries, with the Venezuelan leader vowing he would have "no type of relationship" with the Colombian government as long as Uribe was president.

Uribe, whose father was killed by the FARC, has advocated military rescues of the hostages, but families fear their loved ones would be killed in potential crossfire. Since he took office in 2002, Uribe's administration has had no face-to-face meetings with the rebels.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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