Hostages Freed in Colombia

By John Barham International Editor

Elite Colombian troops Tuesday raided a guerrilla jungle camp in Guaviare, Colombia, and freed three American contractors and a former Colombian presidential candidate, according to Reuters news agency and El Tiempo, a Bogotá newspaper.

The defense ministry said all four were in reasonably good health, given their years in captivity.The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, has held about 40 high-profile hostages for years to use as trump cards in future talks with the government on prisoner exchanges and a peace settlement to end the FARC’s 40-year insurgency.

The three Americans were taken prisoner in 2003 when their light plane crashed during an anti-narcotics spraying mission. Thomas Howe, Keith Stansell, and Marc Gonsalves were working for private U.S. companies under contract to the Pentagon. Betancourt, a former presidential candidate with French-Colombian dual nationality, was kidnapped by the FARC in 2002. She was last seen in a rebel video at the end of last year looking gaunt and despondent.

The release of the four is yet another blow to the FARC. Earlier this year, its leader died of a heart attack, and his second-in-command was killed in a raid by Colombian forces. Desertions and attacks by a better-equipped Colombian military have brought the FARC to its knees. Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez has withdrawn support for the group.

Colombia's success is due to better tactics, equipment, and intelligence. The government is getting about $400 million a year in anti-narcotics aid from Washington. This support is helping the fight against the FARC, one of the world's biggest suppliers of cocaine.

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