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U.S. Role Seen In Colombia Hostage Rescue

The Colombian government told the U.S. of the plan to rescue hostages from FARC rebels two weeks ago and asked the American military for help, Pentagon sources say.

The U.S. provided aid during the operation in the form of surveillance aircraft that have the ability to eavesdrop on guerrilla communications. The planes' ability to electronically jam radios used by the rebels was pivotal once the operation was under way.

"The essence of the operation was designed obviously to minimize the ability of the FARC to communicate at the time the operation was going down," U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield says. "That was the sort of technical assistance that obviously was made available to the Colombian armed forces."

More U.S. aircraft, including powerful AC-130 gunships, were on standby, but not used. There were no U.S. troops on the ground, Pentagon sources say.

In Miami, Adm. Jim Stavridis, the top U.S. commander for Central and South America, closely monitored the events.

Pentagon officials were reluctant to talk about the operational details of the rescue mission, fearing it could interfere with future Colombian operations. They stressed it was planned and carried out by the Colombians and praised Colombian special operations soldiers.

Once the operation was complete, the American hostages were flown to Texas aboard a U.S. C-17 aircraft, specially outfitted for medical and psychological care. After landing, the three boarded a helicopter and were transported to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where they were undergoing evaluation and treatment before being reunited with family and loved ones.

The hostages — Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes — all worked for Northrop Grumman and were captured in 2003 after their light aircraft crashed in the jungles during a counternarcotics operation.

The three, along with former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 11 other hostages, were rescued in a daring operation that involved months of intelligence gathering and a ruse in which the guerrillas were tricked into loading their captives onto a disguised government helicopter.

Betancourt, 46, was abducted in February 2002.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.