American hostages held for 5 years released

Keith Stansell (left), Marc Gonsalves (center) and Thomas Howes were held by the FARC since 2003.
Keith Stansell (left), Marc Gonsalves (center) and Thomas Howes were held by the FARC since 2003.

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (CNN) -- Three rescued Americans held hostage for more than five years by a Colombian rebel group arrived home in the United States late Wednesday.

The Air Force C-17 carrying the men arrived at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, at 11:16 p.m. CT (12:16 a.m. Thursday ET).

Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell were U.S. government contractors who had been captured and held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) since their plane crashed in a remote region of the country in February 2003.

The men were quickly ferried across town in helicopters to Brooke Army Medical Center, where they were to undergo medical examinations and debriefing.

They were among 15 hostages rescued Wednesday in a Colombian military operation, according to the country's defense minister.

"I didn't even know what to do," said Kyle Stansell, Keith's son, who said he was on the beach when his stepfather called with the news. "I just started freaking out -- screaming, yelling. I ran as fast as I could off the beach." Video Stansell family eagerly awaits captive's return »

The contractors were conducting a joint U.S.-Colombian aerial counternarcotics mission when their aircraft made an emergency landing because of mechanical failure. FARC members patrolling the area reached the aircraft and killed two crew members.

"This is a day of enormous joy for Marc, Keith and Tom and their families," said Admiral James Stavridis, commander of the U.S. military's southern command. "My deepest congratulations to the Colombian security forces, who executed a brilliant operation to successfully free the hostages."

Stavridis has kept a picture of the hostages on his desk since taking command in 2006 and said their release has been one of his top priorities.

"You could hear the cheers throughout the building when we announced the success of the rescue," he said.

The U.S. government considers the FARC a terrorist group and has refused to negotiate with them while publicly urging the group to release the Americans.

"We have supported and continue to support any credible initiative by any leader or organization, in coordination with the government of Colombia, to achieve the safe recovery of all of the hostages," the U.S. State Department said in a written statement in February marking the fifth year of their captivity. "Our thoughts and prayers remain with the hostages and their loved ones." Video Watch the hostages land on U.S. soil »

The FARC, which has fought a long-standing 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.

Before news of the rescue broke Wednesday, U.S. senator and presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain said he had mentioned the three in talks with government officials during his visit to Colombia -- part of a three-day visit to Latin America -- and that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe had briefed him on the planned raid Tuesday night.

"It is great news," McCain said. "Now we must renew our efforts to free all of the other innocent people held hostage."

Earlier this year, Bill Richardson, the Democratic governor of New Mexico and a former presidential candidate and U.S. ambassador, met with Uribe and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the request of the contractors' families.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the U.S. government was working Wednesday afternoon to reunite the former hostages with their families. Rice also called on the FARC to release its remaining hostages.

"We hold the FARC responsible for the health and well-being of all hostages," she said in a written statement. "We commend the government of Colombia for its sustained efforts to secure the safe return of all FARC hostages. Our thoughts and prayers remain with those still held by the FARC and their loved ones."

Several months after their capture, a Colombian journalist filmed the three men at a rebel camp, where FARC commanders branded them CIA spies and prisoners of war. Family members never saw them again until just months ago, when they were shown in a captured rebel video.

"It's been a long haul here," George Gonsalves, Marc's father, said at the time. "It has been a very trying experience, to say the least, not knowing how he is doing, what he is doing." The video showed Gonsalves brushing bugs away from his face and Stansell staring silently into the camera.

Only Howes spoke, giving details about his will and telling his wife he is proud of her.

"You think every year is going to be the year," George Gonsalves said. "That is what I thought last year and certainly I'll hope for that this year."

Source: CNN