Contractors kidnapped by Colombian rebels were longest-held US captives in the world
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell were conducting drug surveillance for the Pentagon when their plane went down in rebel-held Colombian jungle in February 2003.
When the three disappeared, so, it seemed, did any public efforts to rescue them -- at least publicly.
While France exhorted the world to care about the plight of French-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt, and even sent a humanitarian mission in a failed rescue attempt this year, the U.S. government remained nearly silent about the employees of a Northrup Grumman Corp. subsidiary.
Relatives of the three men complained publicly about what seemed to be a failure to act. At one point, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez seemed like he was doing more than the U.S. government to free the longest held U.S. hostages in the world.
Gonsalves' father George said the families had been frustrated over the years by a lack of information about what the U.S. and Colombian governments were doing to secure the men's release.
"We didn't know what the heck was going on," he told reporters. "I'm getting information from you guys."
Their fate seemed particularly grim after "proof-of-life" images released last November showed them looking haggard, even haunted, against a deep jungle background.
The contractors and Betancourt were among a group of rebel-designated "political prisoners" whom the FARC said it would release only in exchange for hundreds of imprisoned rebels. But every attempt at dialogue seemed to fall apart.
But Colombia's U.S.-supported military was closing in. Last month, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said soldiers had spotted the three men in the southern jungles, but they disappeared into the forest before the troops could attempt a rescue.
Gonsalves' father George was cutting his lawn in Hebron, Connecticut Wednesday when a neighbor rushed over to tell him his son was freed.
"I couldn't believe it," he said. "It's just a wonderful thing. I'm so excited."
Stansell's stepmother Lynne said she was "waiting to be briefed here by the Department of Defense, so they've asked us not to talk to anyone. But we have obviously wonderful news."
"We're still teary-eyed and do not quite have our wits about us."
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)