Hostage reunites with his Bradenton family

Keith Stansell, one of three American hostages held for five years and five months in the jungles of Colombia, was reunited Thursday with his Bradenton family at a U.S. military hospital in Texas.

His parents Gene and Lynne Stansell and his children Lauren, 19, and Kyle, 16, flew to Texas for the emotional reunion after Wednesday's dramatic rescue of 15 hostages by Colombian military intelligence officers.

"They are doing very well," said Col. Carl Dickens, an Army psychologist at the Brooke Army Medical Hospital in San Antonio. "They are very resilient . . . very stress-hardy."

The three men, Stansell, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves, survived a plane crash in February 2003, followed by years of jungle captivity, often forced to sleep in chains. The three were working in Colombia on a civilian defense contract doing counternarcotics surveillance.

An initial medical examination indicated that all three are in "very good physical condition," said Col. Jackie Hayes, an Army psychiatrist. "Everything looks good," with lab tests pending. It is thought that they suffered bouts of malaria, hepatitis and a parasitic skin disease common in tropical jungle called leishmaniasis.

The Americans were among 15 hostages freed by an audacious operation involving military intelligence officers who tricked their rebels captors into handing them over without firing a shot.

It was the most serious blow ever dealt to the rebel group holding the hostages, the 44-year-old Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by the initials FARC, which plays a major role in Colombia's cocaine trade.

The rescue was also vindication for a decade of oft-criticized U.S. military funding for Colombia, analysts say, as well as the Churchillian political leadership of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a close U.S. ally.

Speculation swirled Thursday over the U.S. role in the rescue. U.S. officials say that Colombians planned and executed the operation but that the United States provided intelligence, planning and technical assistance.

"It's was 100 percent made in Colombia," Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told the Univision TV network. U.S. military officials did help plan a training drill as well as an alarm system for the pilot to warn in the event the operation went awry, he said.

The Pentagon's closed-door handling of the three Americans was in sharp contrast to the moving scenes and very public expressions of joy by the Colombian hostages.

A day after seeing her mother for the first time after more than six years in captivity, former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt was reunited with her two children, who were flown in from Paris. Betancourt walked up the stairway of the plane to embrace her son Lorenzo, 19, and daughter Melanie, 22.

"The last time I saw my son, Lorenzo was a little kid and I could carry him around," she said. "I told them, they're going to have to put up with me now, because I'm going to be stuck to them like chewing gum."

It may be days before the American public gets to hear from the three Americans. They are being put through a Pentagon Reintegration Program to help them "transition back to normal life after the stress of captivity," according to Army Maj. Gen. Keith Huber. Medical tests and psychological evaluation would help them identify "the challenges they face . . . and give them some action plans.''

For Stansell, returning to his family presents challenges. His Colombian girlfriend gave birth to twins after he was captured. Stansell's parents met the twins and their mother for the first time in Venezuela earlier this year during failed hostage negotiations.

David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com.

Hostage reunites with his Bradenton family 07/03/08 [Last modified: Saturday, July 5, 2008 10:54pm]

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