One freed hostage, Keith Stansell, has family in Lakewood Ranch and Sarasota
By SIBYLLA BRODZINSKY, CASEY WOODS AND FRANCES ROBLES
Miami Herald Staff Writers
BOGOTA, Colombia -- Colombia's four most famous hostages -- three American defense contractors and a former presidential candidate -- were rescued from the jungle after years in the hands of leftists rebels, the Colombian defense ministry announced Wednesday.
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Authorities also captured a top FARC leader, "alias César," who was in charge of the hostages, and another guerrilla.
In describing "Operation Checkmate," Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said Colombian military intelligence managed to infiltrate the top hierarchy of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and arrange for a transfer of hostages purportedly to be handed over to Alfonso Cano, the rebel group's maximum leader.
The government mole arranged for the hostages to be brought together from three different locations to one camp, and then taken to a helicopter the FARC believed belonged to a friendly aid group that would take the hostages to Cano.
Instead, it was a military helicopter piloted by intelligence officers, who whisked a total of 15 hostages to freedom.
Free are American defense contractors Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves; former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt; and 11 soldiers and police officers.
"They are free, safe and sound," Santos said at a press conference.
Betancourt was kidnapped in 2002 on the campaign trail, instantly becoming a in both Colombia and France, where she also has citizenship. Her campaign manager was released from captivity earlier this year.
A year after Betancourt's kidnapping, the Americans also were taken by FARC guerrillas. The Americans were working for a U.S. defense contractor corporation, Northrop Grumman, taking drug crop surveillance photos when their plane crashed into Colombia's jungle, which at the time was overrun by leftist rebels. The three were taken captive by the FARC and held as pawns for a prisoner swap.
Betancourt has been in captivity for six and a half years; the Americans five and a half.
Stansell's father and stepmother, Gene and Lynne Stansell, live in Lakewood Ranch.
"We're very happy with the news," Lynne Stansell said Wednesday evening at their home. Federal officials alerted them of their son's release, but asked them not to talk with the media until officials debriefed them.
Stansell's overjoyed family began converging Wednesday afternoon at the Sarasota home where two of his children live with his ex-wife, Kelly Coady.
"This is unbelievable," Coady, 42, said as multiple waiting calls beeped though on her cellphone. "I'm the happiest person on the planet right now."
Coady said she had just managed to reach her teenage son Kyle, who had been at the beach when the news of his father's rescue broke.
A U.S Army representative contacted the family and would be meeting with them Wednesday evening to discuss the next steps to reunification with Stansell. The representative said the family would need to go to San Antonio, but didn't give more details, Coady said.
"We had no idea this was coming. We've been hoping, just trying to get by day by day. Heck, I've just been trying to get Kyle through summer school," Coady said. "I'm so grateful they went in and got them and they're all ok, and that Ingrid has been freed, too."
The hostages were initially expected to be taken to the Tolemaida military base where Santos, the defense minister, was due to greet them. But journalists at the base were told Wednesday evening the reunion would take place in Bogotá.
Santos said the military decided not to attack any of the other guerrillas in the vicinity, as an act of good faith to persuade the FARC to turn over any remaining hostages.
"We will continue working on the freedom of the rest of the kidnap victims," Santos said at a press conference in Bogotá. "We call out to the current leaders of the FARC to not get themselves killed, free the rest of the hostages and do not sacrifice your men."
In Paris, Betancourt's son Lorenzo Delloye-Betancourt told the Associated Press that Betancourt's release, after six years of captivity, was "if true, the most beautiful news of my life."
Speaking on Colombian TV, he had a message for his mom:
"I want to tell my mother that I love her that today is the happiest day of my life,. There have been moments of so much hope and now when we didn't expect it, she is free. It's incredible."
There was no answer at the homes of American families of the other U.S. hostages.
Luis Eladio Pérez, a former FARC hostage released in March and a friend of Betancourt, told local television that he felt an "enormous joy'' at their release and called the rescue a "death blow'' to the FARC.
The news spread quickly in Miami, where the news was announced at Monserrate Restaurant, a Colombian restaurant in Doral where the local community gathered Wednesday at an event to support presidential candidate John McCain's visit to Cartagena, Colombia.
First, there was a collective gasp.
"God bless Colombia," said Colombian community leader Fabio Andrade. "I get emotional talking about this, because I think this is a very important moment for Colombia. This is a great moment for Colombia because our country has suffered for 45 years and this is a sign that the terrorists are finally being terminated."
The rescue ironically came on the same day as McCain's visit to Cartagena.
It also comes amid a political crisis in the South American country, where President Alvaro Uribe is under fire for efforts by his supporters for Uribe to seek a third term. At a public appearance in Bogotá, Uribe was received with a resounding applause.
"This definitely means Uribe will be reelected, said Doral resident Jorge Luna, 42.
‘‘This means his popularity will skyrocket even more."
The defense contractor corporation that employed the Americans confirmed the ‘‘long-awaited news'' that all three men "have been safely freed."
"Northrop Grumman looks forward to having all three men reunited with their families back home in the United States," spokesman Jack Martin Jr. said in a statement.
"They were freed as part of a successful Colombian military rescue effort and have been transferred to the custody of the U.S. government in Colombia for return to the United States."
Bradenton Herald staff writer Maura Possley contributed to this report.