February 12, 2008 / 8:06 PM / 10 years ago

U.S. families hopeful of Colombia hostages release

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Five years after her son was snatched by Colombian guerrillas, Lynne Stansell hopes this could be the last frustrating anniversary she will have to spend waiting for news he has been freed by his rebel captors.

Recent videos taken by FARC guerrillas of U.S. contractors Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes showed images of the men looking despondent, pale, but in fair health in the jungle that has been their prison for half a decade.

Hopes the Americans and scores of Colombians could be freed soon have been rekindled since the FARC rebels handed two women hostages over to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in the first such release in years by Latin America’s oldest insurgency.

“We just pray we don’t have to start from scratch again and that there is not a sixth, seventh and eighth anniversary,” Lynne Stansell told Reuters by phone from Florida.

The three U.S. citizens are among 44 high-profile FARC captives, along with French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, police officers and lawmakers the guerrillas want to trade in a deal for jailed rebels.

The hostages are at the center of a dispute between Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Chavez, a U.S. foe who is trying to broker the release of three more hostages, but who has angered Bogota by demanding more recognition for the FARC.

The United States and Europe Union call the FARC a cocaine-smuggling terrorist group.

Washington says it welcomes any attempts to secure the release of hostages and France, Spain and Switzerland are also pushing to break a deadlock in efforts to free captives.

But relatives say they often feel the U.S. government has not done enough for the three men during the last five years.

“It has just been so frustrating that in the past there have been so many stumbling blocks,” Stansell said. “But the fact that two ladies got out and three more may be in the process at least it proves that it can be done.”

Keith Stansell (L), Marc Gonsalves (C) and Thomas Howes are seen in a photographic collage at the home of Gonsalves' father George in Hebron, Connecticut February 12, 2008. The photographs were taken in 2003 by the FARC rebel group of U.S. hostages Marc Gonsalves, Stansell and Howes, who are being held by the FARC in Colombia since being kidnapped on February 13, 2003. REUTERS/Brian Snyder


Under Uribe’s U.S.-backed security crackdown, the FARC -- Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- has been pushed back into remote rural areas as violence from the four-decade conflict has ebbed sharply. But the FARC keep fighting.

The three U.S. contractors worked for Northrop Grumman Corp as part of U.S.-funded counter-narcotics efforts. Their plane crashed in February 2003 while over the jungles and they were captured in a remote area controlled by rebels.

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Guerrillas killed two crew members -- an American contractor and a Colombian army sergeant -- at the crash site and slipped away with the three before rescuers arrived.

Northrop Grumman is still engaged with the U.S. government and Congress in trying to free the three men, the company said. But it is no longer involved in anti-drug flights in Colombia.

Months after their capture a local journalist filmed the three men at a rebel camp, where FARC commanders branded them CIA spies and prisoners of war. Only two months ago did the families see the men again in a captured rebel video.

“It’s been a long haul here,” George Gonsalves, Marc’s father, said by telephone from his home in Connecticut. “It has been a very trying experience, to say the least, not knowing how he is doing, what he is doing.”

The video showed Gonsalves brushing bugs away from his face and Stansell staring silently into the camera. Only Howes speaks, giving details about his will and telling his wife he is proud of her.

The images contrasted sharply with three simple photographs of the men in the entrance of the U.S. embassy in Bogota, where a black cloth banner proclaims “You are not forgotten.”

Gonsalves smiles in happier times in his picture.

“You think every year is going to be the year,” his father George said. “That is what I thought last year and certainly I’ll hope for that this year.”

Editing by Eric Walsh

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