July 3, 2008

Rescue of Hostages in Colombia Ends Richardson’s Mission

By Kate Nash, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Jul. 3--Just last week, Gov. Bill Richardson said he planned to return to Colombia to try to negotiate the release of three U.S. citizens being held by Colombian rebels.

But the Colombian military has saved him a trip, securing the release of three Americans and 11 Colombians on Wednesday in an apparent trick on the rebels holding the hostages.

The Associated Press reported that military contractors Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell were freed as was French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate in Colombia.

The governor said Wednesday that he was pleased by the developments. "Their families, who fought for their release and raised awareness among the international community, deserve the most credit," he said in a statement.

"I worked hard for the release of these hostages, and I am glad that the rescue operation appears to have been conducted in a safe manner, resulting in a minimal loss of life, if any," he said. "Hopefully this rescue will prove to be an impetus toward a humanitarian accord to release the hundreds of remaining hostages being held by rebels and help reduce tension in the region."

Richardson's office didn't return a call seeking comment about whether the governor knew about the military's efforts in advance of news reports Wednesday.

The rescue is the most serious blow ever dealt to the 44-year-old Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, who considered Betancourt and the three Americans their most valuable bargaining chips.

The group, also known as FARC, had been holding the Americans hostage since 2003.

Richardson this spring visited both Colombia and Venezuela to talk with the presidents of those countries about a humanitarian accord. He got Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to agree to help in the hostage negotiations. Chavez is seen as an intermediary between the rebels and the Colombian government.

The leftist rebels wanted members of their groups released from jail in exchange for the release of hostages. The FARC kidnapped the three Americans after their plane crashed during an anti-drug mission. The men had been sent to scope out the coordinates of coca leaf fields so other planes could be flown in to spray leaf-killing chemicals on the fields.


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