WASHINGTON, July 3, 2008 – Colombia’s military yesterday rescued 15 hostages, including three U.S. government contractors, from leftist revolutionary captors who had imprisoned the group in jungle camps since 2003.

The contractors returned to the United States aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III transport jet, which delivered them to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, shortly before midnight.

They then traveled by helicopter to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio for treatment.

Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell — all employees of the Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp. — were captured in February 2003 after their drug-surveillance plane went down in the jungles of southern Colombia. They spent five years in captivity, the longest period of captivity for any American hostages.

“We are delighted with the safe recovery of these Americans after more than five years of captivity,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement yesterday.

“We commend the government of Colombia for its sustained efforts to secure the safe return of all FARC hostages,” Rice said, using the Spanish acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia captors. The United States has considered FARC a terrorist organization since November 2001.”The United States calls on the FARC to release immediately all remaining hostages so they may be returned safely to their families,” she said. “We hold the FARC responsible for the health and well-being of all hostages. Our thoughts and prayers remain with those still held by the FARC and their loved ones.”

The rescue mission took place in Guaviare province, a jungle region in south-central Colombia, where commandos deceived a rebel unit into handing over the hostages, according to news reports.

By late afternoon, the prisoners, who included former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, were flown to the main military air base in the Colombian capital of Bogota.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the operation was planned, led and executed by Colombia.

Asked today if the United States played a role in the mission, Whitman said only that the two countries’ militaries have a strong relationship that includes “a certain amount of cooperation and information sharing.”

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