CARTAGENA, Colombia — Three American defense contractors held since 2003 by narco-guerillas in steamy jungle captivity were choppered to freedom here, it was announced Wednesday, in a daring rescue operation that resembled a Hollywood action film.
Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos announced Wednesday afternoon that the nation's special forces had rescued 15 hostages, including the three U.S. citizens and a former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, whose captivity had become an international cause celebre.
Freed alongside Betancourt, whose liberation had been sought by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, were Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell — contractors working for a subsidiary of defense titan Northrop Grumman.
They'd been held since their Cessna crashed during an anti-drug mission in remote Colombian guerrilla territory on Feb. 13, 2003. Santos pronounced all three in good health. A fourth American, Thomas John Janis, was killed trying to elude capture after the 2003 air crash.
"I'm really excited about this. It surprised the heck out of me," said George Gonsalves, father of one of the hostages, who learned about his son Marc's release as he did yard work at his home in Hebron, Conn. "I was out cutting grass when my neighbor came over to let me know the news."
Amanda Howes, the niece of Thomas Howes, learned about her uncle's release after she saw a news bulletin from the Associated Press while working at Boston television station WHGH.
"I just screamed," she said, quickly calling her father Stephen Howes to tell him his brother had been freed after five long years of jungle misery. "We hope that he's safe. We can't wait to see him and we're just so happy that this has happened."
The office of Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said late Wednesday that the Americans were on their way to the United States. White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the U.S. was aware of the operation in advance and supported it.
The hostages were held by the FARC, a Marxist group that funds itself by protecting cocaine production and has waged a 44-year war to topple Colombia's democratically elected governments.
"This is a tough and irreversible blow to the morale of the FARC, and I think that from now on, their self-esteem and their pretensions of coercing the Colombian government will be seriously affected," said Alfredo Rangel, a political analyst and director of the Foundation for Security and Democracy in Colombia.
The rescue could prove the death knell for the FARC, suggested Bruce Bagley, a Latin America expert at the University of Miami.
"The FARC is in a serious process of deterioration. Its ability to function as a guerrilla or revolutionary group is increasingly in doubt," he said.
Colombia's conservative President Alvaro Uribe was elected on a platform of defeating the rebel group, which has in recent years come to be seen more as a criminal organization than a guerrilla movement. The Bush administration placed the FARC on the list of terrorist organizations.
"It's an end to a nightmare," Cesar Gaviria, a former Colombian president, told local television, congratulating Uribe.
The rescue will undoubtedly propel the popularity of Uribe even higher. He already had a 70-percent approval rating. A crowd greeted him with a standing ovation at an already-scheduled event at a hospital inauguration on Wednesday afternoon.
President Bush spoke by phone with Uribe and told him that he was "a strong leader," Johndroe said.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who in recent months had worked to try and secure the release of Betancourt, who holds French and Colombian citizenship, welcomed in a statement the release of "Ingrid and all those free today who have endured this terrible Calvary."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement, "We are delighted with the safe recovery of these Americans after more than five years of captivity. We are working now to reunite them swiftly with their families in the United States."
Details of the hostage rescue were the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters. Defense Minister Santos said that intelligence forces infiltrated the FARC high command and tricked them into grouping together three groups of hostages at a central meeting point.
The pretext was that an international non-profit group would take them by helicopter to the FARC's new leader, Alfonso Cano.
Instead, Colombian commandos were aboard the helicopters and forced the hostages' kidnappers to surrender while in flight without firing a shot. The hostages were liberated in the central Colombian state of Guaviare south of Bogota.
Speaking later on national television, Betancourt described how two guerrillas accompanied them on the helicopter but were overpowered during the flight. A man then announced: "We're from the army!"
"We jumped up, yelled and hugged," Betancourt said. "We couldn't believe it!
The captivity of Betancourt and others has been a major political issue in Colombia, with Uribe under increasing pressure to find a way to free them. In February, hundreds of thousands of Colombians marched for the hostages' freedom. Only about 1 percent of Colombians sympathize with the FARC.
The guerrillas unilaterally released six former Colombian lawmakers earlier this year, leaving Betancourt and the Americans as the remaining high-profile hostages.
Betancourt had been kidnapped in 2002 when she was running for president and was widely seen as the FARC's most valuable bargaining chip. The most recent video of her from the jungle showed her thin and wan, leading to fears that she could die unless freed this year.
Betancourt, wearing an army camouflage vest, was mobbed by her husband and mother as she stepped off a plane and onto the tarmac.
"It's the hug that her mother has wanted to give her for six years," a television announcer narrated. She and the other freed Colombian hostages linked arms for waiting photographers.
The FARC holds another 600 or so Colombians. Most of them are soldiers and policemen.
Referring to Wednesday's rescue, Amnesty International said: "This is extremely positive news, but we should not forget about the hundreds of others who continue to be held across Colombia. We urge the FARC to release all hostages immediately and unconditionally."
The FARC has waged war against the Colombian governments since 1964 and it is Latin America's oldest guerrilla movement.
In recent years, the FARC has financed its activities through cocaine trafficking and kidnapping ransoms.
After ineffectual actions by his predecessors, Uribe has waged an unremitting offensive against the FARC since he took office in 2002, financed in part by U.S. taxpayers.
In 2008, three of the FARC's top leaders have died, including long-time leader Manuel Marulanda, either by heart attack or a government bombardment.
FARC soldiers are now killed, captured or defect every day.
The FARC's peak came in 2002 when it had nearly 17,000 members. Today, analysts estimate their ranks to be down to as few as 8,000.
"We will continue working around the clock to secure the release of all the remaining hostages," the Colombian government said in a statement Wednesday. "Once again we call upon the new leaders of the FARC to lay down their arms, to demobilize. The Government of Colombia reiterates that if they are willing to negotiate seriously and in good faith, we will offer them a peace process."
The three Americans had worked for Maryland-based California Microwave Systems, part of defense contractor Northup Grumman. They were detecting and mapping production of coca, the leafy bush whose leaves are used to make cocaine.
Earlier this year, documents captured from the slain guerrilla leader Raul Reyes showed how the FARC refused to include the Americans in any third-country negotiation to free hostages.
The FARC insisted that the Americans be exchanged for captured rebel leaders now imprisoned in the United States, including Ricardo Palma, whose nom de guerre was Simon Trinidad, and Nayibe Rojas Valderama, who went by the alias Sonia. (Washington Correspondents Federica Narancio and Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report.