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Hostages Rescued In Colombia

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

A major development in Colombia today. The military there has rescued three American contractors and a very famous hostage, former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. They were being held by left-wing guerillas. Army commandos apparently surrounded the rebels and persuaded them to turn over the captives. Colombia's defense ministry says the operation was pulled off without any loss of life. The dramatic rescue follows years of efforts to free the hostages. And joining us for more on the rescue is John Otis of the Houston Chronicle, who is in Bogota. John, what more can you tell us about today's rescue?

Mr. JOHN OTIS (Houston Chronicle): Well, first of all, it's just major news because these hostages have been held for more then five years. The three Americans - Keith Stansell, Tom Howes and Marc Gonzalves - were kidnapped five years ago; Ingrid Betancourt was kidnapped six years ago. It's just a huge day of joy here in Bogota. In terms of the rescue itself, it's still rather mysterious, but it was basically an infiltration job. The army managed to infiltrate the FARC, convince them to bring these hostages, who were separated into three groups, bring them together, and they got them onto a helicopter and brought them back to freedom.

SIEGEL: Do you know anything about the condition or the health of the hostages now that they've been freed?

Mr. OTIS: There were proof of live videos released about six months go. Ingrid Betancourt, the former presidential candidate, was looking very ill and very thin. There were fears that she might be on her death bed. Apparently she's okay. The three Americans looked fairly healthy in those videos, considering they've been held in the jungle for five years and suffering from malaria and all sorts of jungle diseases. They actually looked pretty good despite the conditions.

SIEGEL: Now, I gather that in total 15 hostages were rescued, but they are a small number of all of the hostages held by guerilla fighters in the movement known as the FARC. Do we have any idea of what the total is?

Mr. OTIS: There's another 42 Colombian police and army soldiers being held hostage by the rebels. And plus, another - an indeterminate number of other hostages; numbers range from 500 to 600 to 700, but it's really hard to tell because it's such a secretive thing. But those are the numbers that are being bandied about.

SIEGEL: John, do you get the impression that this was a one-off dramatic success by the Colombian military or that it's a signal of any larger turn of momentum in favor of the government of Alvaro Uribe?

Mr. OTIS: It's very much the second. The Colombian government has all the momentum on its side right now. In the past three months they've killed three top FARC guerillas, and also the FARC's maximum leader, Manuel Marulanda, died of a heart attack in March. So the FARC is really reeling right now. A couple of - one of their prisoners escaped last year and the FARC has turned over unilaterally six hostages in the last six months. So the FARC is really on the run right now and the government has all the momentum.

SIEGEL: Do we know to what extent U.S. forces might have in any way assisted the Colombians in doing this?

Mr. OTIS: Still too early to say on that. The news just broke an hour or so ago. The United States does provide about half billion dollars annually in mostly military and anti-drug aid to the Colombian forces. American Green Berets are stationed here in Colombia. They mostly do training. They're not supposed to get involved on the battlefield. But there are Green Berets here in Colombia.

SIEGEL: We should note that I assume by sheer coincidence Senator John McCain was in Colombia today on the first leg of a two-nation trip to Latin America when all this happened.

Mr. OTIS: It's a total coincidence. But the funny thing is he met with Colombia's foreign minister Fernando Araujo who is himself a former FARC hostage who managed to escape a year ago, so they probably talked about their days as POWs.

SIEGEL: John, thank you very much for talking with us.

MR. OTIS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's John Otis, who is South American bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle. He was speaking to us from Bogota, the capital of Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.