Details Of The Colombian Hostage Rescue Operation

The three American military contractors who were among the 15 hostages rescued from Colombian leftist rebels have returned home safe. The rescue operation was assisted by quick thinking, acting skills and Che Guevara T-shirts.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

San Antonio, Texas is buzzing with the story of the three American hostages who were rescued from Colombian guerrillas along with 12 others. The men were brought to Brooke Medical Center in San Antonio to undergo medical evaluation and to be reunited with their families.

In 2003, they were in Colombia conducting counter-narcotics operations for the American government when their plane went down in the jungle. NPR's Wade Goodwyn has the story of the rescue.

WADE GOODWYN: The planning for the rescue began after the three Americans - Mark Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell - were spotted in February bathing in a jungle river while being watched by guards. According to General Freddie Padilla, head of Colombia's armed services, the Colombian army had begun using advanced American surveillance devices in the jungle to track the movements of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

U.S. surveillance eavesdropped on guerrilla communications and American satellites watched from above. But it was it an ill-treated guerrilla soldier who turned against his former comrades who ultimately pulled off the stunning trickery.

The guerrillas have suffered numerous setbacks in the last year. A major one was the death of Manuel Marulanda, the rebel's top commander who collapsed and died this spring from a heart attack. The guerrilla army has disintegrated into several factions. Communication and mobility have been compromised. Moving hundreds of hostages around has become difficult, if not impossible.

Into this context stepped the disgruntled guerrilla soldier. According to the Associated Press, the newly turned double agent was able to convince a top guerrilla commander that their superior officers wanted the three Americans and the 12 other hostages moved to a new location.

On Wednesday, two Russian-made helicopters landed at a rendezvous point. The pilots wore T-shirts with Che Guevara on the front. Another agent was disguised as a cameraman. All had taken impromptu acting lessons. The hostages' hands were tied so no one of them could get a wild hair and decide to play hero. When everybody was aboard, the two guerrilla commanders were told to drop their weapons and that was it.

When the hostages were untied and told what was really happening, they began jumping up and down in the helicopter with such abandon that some said afterwards it was a wonder the helicopter flew on.

At Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio yesterday, Major General Keith Huber was asked by a Colombian journalist if the three American military contractors were actually CIA operatives. General Huber's eyes bulged and he responded this way...

General KEITH HUBER: Thank you for the question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Gen. HUBER: And I will limit my comments to the role that we have here at U.S. Army South as the designated agent of Department of Defense to facilitate the reintegration process.

GOODWYN: In other words, no comment. Precise designations aside, the families of Mark Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell are glad their men are going to be home for July 4th, 2008.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, San Antonio.

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U.S. Role Seen In Colombia Hostage Rescue

U.S. Hostages Home

Three American military contractors arrive in Texas after being held for five years.

The Colombian government told the U.S. of the plan to rescue hostages from FARC rebels two weeks ago and asked the American military for help, Pentagon sources say.

The U.S. provided aid during the operation in the form of surveillance aircraft that have the ability to eavesdrop on guerrilla communications. The planes' ability to electronically jam radios used by the rebels was pivotal once the operation was under way.

"The essence of the operation was designed obviously to minimize the ability of the FARC to communicate at the time the operation was going down," U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield says. "That was the sort of technical assistance that obviously was made available to the Colombian armed forces."

More U.S. aircraft, including powerful AC-130 gunships, were on standby, but not used. There were no U.S. troops on the ground, Pentagon sources say.

In Miami, Adm. Jim Stavridis, the top U.S. commander for Central and South America, closely monitored the events.

Pentagon officials were reluctant to talk about the operational details of the rescue mission, fearing it could interfere with future Colombian operations. They stressed it was planned and carried out by the Colombians and praised Colombian special operations soldiers.

Once the operation was complete, the American hostages were flown to Texas aboard a U.S. C-17 aircraft, specially outfitted for medical and psychological care. After landing, the three boarded a helicopter and were transported to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where they were undergoing evaluation and treatment before being reunited with family and loved ones.

The hostages — Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes — all worked for Northrop Grumman and were captured in 2003 after their light aircraft crashed in the jungles during a counternarcotics operation.

The three, along with former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 11 other hostages, were rescued in a daring operation that involved months of intelligence gathering and a ruse in which the guerrillas were tricked into loading their captives onto a disguised government helicopter.

Betancourt, 46, was abducted in February 2002.

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