A Dramatic Hostage Rescue in Colombia

Three American defense contractors are among the 14 hostages freed from FARC rebels.

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The four most high-profile hostages held by a feared Colombian rebel group, including three Americans and a former Colombian presidential candidate, were rescued today by Colombian forces.

Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said his country's commandos freed a total of 14 hostages who had been held by guerrilla fighters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (better known by its Spanish acronym FARC). He said that Colombian agents had infiltrated the group and helped Colombian Army commandos to surround a local band of guerrillas, who were eventually persuaded to hand over their captives.

Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen and former Colombian presidential candidate who had been in FARC captivity for six years, was seen late last year in video footage looking drawn and haggard. The three Americans, Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes, and Keith Stansell, were U.S. Department of Defense contractors who had been held since February 2003, when their airplane crashed during a counternarcotics operation. The remaining 11 hostages were Colombian soldiers and police.

The successful rescue operation is a crowning achievement for Colombia, which has been fighting an increasingly successful battle against the scourge of kidnapping, which has plagued Colombia for years.

Overall, kidnappings in Colombia have plummeted from a peak of 3,572 victims in 2000 to 521 in 2007. Colombian forces, bolstered by U.S. training, have also become more proficient at rescue operations. U.S. News recently told the story of one successful rescue operation.

The operation was also another blow to the FARC rebels, who have been on the run in recent years. While its ranks had once numbered more than 40,000, U.S. officials estimate that the number of fighters has dwindled to about 9,000.

—Kevin Whitelaw