Keith Stansell, of Sarasota Fl, freed in Special Ops sting of FARC Terrorists in Columbia after 5 years.
In a secret operation a U.S. official called "brilliant," the Colombian military infiltrated rebel group FARC and deceived its members into giving up 15 hostages including former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, Colombia's defense ministry said. Politician Ingrid Betancourt, pictured in 2001, had been in captivity in Colombia for more than six years.
Betancourt, who was reportedly in deteriorating health, was kidnapped in 2002 by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Along with Betancourt, three American contractors and 11 other hostages who were Colombian police were rescued in Wednesday's operation. Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said the Colombian military had infiltrated the FARC leadership and arranged for the hostages to be taken to the south of the country, where they were to be picked up by helicopters that the rebels believed were controlled by another group.
The rescuers came wearing Che Guevara T-shirts and logos declaring them delegates of some obscure organization. They didn't look much like an international humanitarian brigade. And they weren't. They were the Colombian intelligence agents who pulled off ''Operation Checkmate,'' one of the greatest military capers in Colombia's history -- a mission that would finally liberate the world's most famous hostage from the hands of leftist rebels in the jungle.
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The Colombian military helicopters flew the 15 away without violence. They were initially transported to a military air base southwest of Bogota, from which they were to travel later Wednesday to the capital, a military spokesman said. Santos called the operation unprecedented and said it "will go into history for its audacity and effectiveness," according to The Associated Press.
The AP also reported that Betancourt said the "absolutely impeccable" military mission took her by surprise and "got us out grandly." She and the other hostages didn't know that military intelligence agents were flying the helicopters that the hostages thought were taking them to another rebel camp, the AP said.
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The FARC (Narco-Terrorism's grandaddy), which has fought a longstanding and complicated conflict with Colombia's government and right-wing paramilitary groups, defends the taking of captives as a legitimate act of war and is believed to hold roughly 750 prisoners in the nation's remote jungles (and Act of Terrorism pure and simple).
The freed include Americans Keith Stansell (Sarasota Fl), Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes. A senior U.S. State Department official told CNN that the families of the hostages had no idea that the rescue operation was taking place. The plight of Betancourt, who has French and Colombian citizenship, has attracted worldwide attention.
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President Bush congratulated Colombian President Alvaro Uribe by phone. Uribe is slated to address the nation at 10 p.m. ET. A senior State Department official said the United States played no role in the operation, though it was briefed on it ahead of time. The official called the operation "brilliant" and "a huge success," saying it involved a deception operation against the FARC.
According to Pentagon officials, Colombians had told the United States about the operation in the past few days. The U.S. approved the plans but had no part in them. The United States is offering medical support to the three American contractors, including a medical evacuation back to America.
Contractors Stansell, Gonsalves and Howes have been held since February 13, 2003, when their single-engine plane crashed in the mountains south of Bogota. The Americans were working for Northrop Grumman Corp. as part of a U.S.-funded counter narcotics effort. Two other men on the plane, American pilot Tommy Janis and a Colombian, were shot to death by FARC. A rescue plane searching for the men crashed six weeks later, killing its American pilot, Butch Oliver, and another American crew member.