CARTAGENA, Colombia — Colombia's defense minister announced Wednesday afternoon that special forces earlier that day had rescued 15 hostages whom the country's biggest guerrilla group had held for years, including three Americans and former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.
Besides Betancourt, the action freed 11 Colombians and three Americans: Thomas Howe, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves. The U.S. citizens had been shot down in an anti-drug mission in 2003.
Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said that all were in good health.
The hostages had been held in the jungle by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC in its Spanish initials.
The rescue is the latest and biggest blow that the government of President Alvaro Uribe has struck against the leftist guerrillas. Within moments of the news, analysts began to speculate that the rescue might be the final straw for the FARC, which has waged a 44-year fight to overturn Colombia's democratically elected government.
I'm very happy to hear the news," former President Cesar Gaviria told RCN TV. "I want to congratulate President Uribe. It's an end to a nightmare."
Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council, said President Bush spoke by phone with President Uribe of Colombia this afternoon.
“The two presidents spoke about the good news of the release of the hostages,” Johndroe said. “President Bush congratulated President Uribe, telling him he is a ‘strong leader.’ President Uribe thanked President Bush for his support and confidence in the Government of Colombia."