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Details Of The Colombian Hostage Rescue Operation

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

San Antonio, Texas is buzzing with the story of the three American hostages who were rescued from Colombian guerrillas along with 12 others. The men were brought to Brooke Medical Center in San Antonio to undergo medical evaluation and to be reunited with their families.

In 2003, they were in Colombia conducting counter-narcotics operations for the American government when their plane went down in the jungle. NPR's Wade Goodwyn has the story of the rescue.

WADE GOODWYN: The planning for the rescue began after the three Americans - Mark Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell - were spotted in February bathing in a jungle river while being watched by guards. According to General Freddie Padilla, head of Colombia's armed services, the Colombian army had begun using advanced American surveillance devices in the jungle to track the movements of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

U.S. surveillance eavesdropped on guerrilla communications and American satellites watched from above. But it was it an ill-treated guerrilla soldier who turned against his former comrades who ultimately pulled off the stunning trickery.

The guerrillas have suffered numerous setbacks in the last year. A major one was the death of Manuel Marulanda, the rebel's top commander who collapsed and died this spring from a heart attack. The guerrilla army has disintegrated into several factions. Communication and mobility have been compromised. Moving hundreds of hostages around has become difficult, if not impossible.

Into this context stepped the disgruntled guerrilla soldier. According to the Associated Press, the newly turned double agent was able to convince a top guerrilla commander that their superior officers wanted the three Americans and the 12 other hostages moved to a new location.

On Wednesday, two Russian-made helicopters landed at a rendezvous point. The pilots wore T-shirts with Che Guevara on the front. Another agent was disguised as a cameraman. All had taken impromptu acting lessons. The hostages' hands were tied so no one of them could get a wild hair and decide to play hero. When everybody was aboard, the two guerrilla commanders were told to drop their weapons and that was it.

When the hostages were untied and told what was really happening, they began jumping up and down in the helicopter with such abandon that some said afterwards it was a wonder the helicopter flew on.

At Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio yesterday, Major General Keith Huber was asked by a Colombian journalist if the three American military contractors were actually CIA operatives. General Huber's eyes bulged and he responded this way...

General KEITH HUBER: Thank you for the question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Gen. HUBER: And I will limit my comments to the role that we have here at U.S. Army South as the designated agent of Department of Defense to facilitate the reintegration process.

GOODWYN: In other words, no comment. Precise designations aside, the families of Mark Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell are glad their men are going to be home for July 4th, 2008.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, San Antonio. 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.

Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.