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US Hails Colombian Military Hostage Rescue

The State Department says it is overjoyed by the Colombian military rescue of 15 hostages - including three U.S. military contractors - held captive for years by FARC guerrillas. U.S. officials say the operation Wednesday reflects broader gains by the Colombian government against the long-running insurgency. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Officials in Washington are heaping praise on the Colombian government for the commando operation that freed the three Americans, and say it is a further sign the tide is turning against the FARC rebel group, which has long been listed by the United States as a terrorist organization.

Americans Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves, employees of the U.S. defense firm Northrup-Grumman, had been held hostage by the FARC - the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - since their anti-drug surveillance plane crashed in rebel-held territory in 2003.

The three men, believed to have been held longer than any other U.S. citizens currently in captivity worldwide, were among the 15 FARC hostages freed in the bloodless Colombian commando operation that also brought the release of former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

President Bush hailed the rescue in a telephone call late Wednesday to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack says Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made similar congratulatory calls to her Colombian counterpart, Foreign Minister Fernando Araujo, and the country's ambassador in Washington.

"The Colombian government and President Uribe stood by their commitment that they were going to treat all the hostages, regardless of nationality, the same, and that they would focus on getting them all home. And that is what they have done. Obviously, there are still hostages being held and we would join with everybody around the world in calling for their immediate return to their families," he said.

McCormack said the United States played a support role in the Colombian military operation, but that the rescue mission itself was planned and executed by Colombian personnel.

The operation is being widely described as an embarrassing setback for the FARC, which has lost some of its most senior commanders in recent months in combat or other circumstances and seen its ranks trimmed by desertions.

Spokesman McCormack said it is unclear if the FARC insurgency is crumbling, but said it is apparent that the Uribe government has recently had the upper hand.

"Clearly they have had some very significant successes. And it is really through grit, determination, focus, reform that they have been able to do that in terms of a government-wide, country-wide effort to combat this problem," continued McCormack. "And right now the world is witnessing some of the results of the hard-work that Colombian people and the Colombian government have put in over the years to combat the FARC."

The FARC has been trying to topple the Colombian government for more than four decades. Originally Marxist-inspired, it has become less ideological, and allied with drug cartels, in recent years.

The United States began providing Colombia with large-scale anti-drug and military assistance during the Clinton administration and the Bogota government has become a key regional ally of the United States.