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Our forgotten hostages

Three Americans held by rebels in Colombia deserve a clear and public commitment to win their freedom.

December 06, 2007

Who can say how they've suffered? Separated from family, friends and country, surviving isolation in the Colombian jungle, do they despair of rescue? Do they fear they are forgotten -- not by loved ones but by the people and the government on whose behalf they were working?

In February 2003, four American defense contractors and a Colombian army sergeant were conducting aerial surveillance of coca crops in Colombia when leftist rebels forced down their plane. Thomas Howes, Marc Gonsalves and Keith Stansell were taken as "prisoners of war" by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which controls much of that country's cocaine trade. Rescue teams found contractor Thomas Janis and the sergeant, Luis Alcidez Cruz, shot to death.

Now, for the first time since their disappearance, comes proof that the contractors are still alive. A video released last week shows them, along with a dozen Colombian hostages and Ingrid Betancourt, a former Colombian senator and presidential candidate. It was joyful news that was quickly tempered by the haunting images. In the video, Betancourt's famed beauty is wrung into emaciation. She appears chained by the wrist to a rough-hewn bench, calling to mind the punishment that a journalist who escaped the rebels said was particularly hers: to sleep chained by the neck for repeated escape attempts.

The three Americans, appearing individually, look healthier than Betancourt but still haggard. The shock of seeing them is different from that of seeing the gaunt Betancourt, whose captivity has been a matter of national anguish in France, where she also is a citizen. It is painful to see the Americans precisely because their plight has not been a cause celebre, and it should have been. Instead, we have allowed their captivity to recede into the general troubles of a troubled world.

The video, however, has reignited hope that the hostages' release might be nearing. Optimism surged last month when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez interceded to negotiate with the rebels, then plunged when Chavez's relationship with Colombia's president devolved into puerile ill-will and name-calling. Now it's up again. Speaking to reporters after viewing the video, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said France would fight "relentlessly" to obtain Betancourt's release. Here in the United States, the video should also inspire us to action, while reminding us to keep the names and faces of Thomas Howes, Marc Gonsalves and Keith Stansell before us. They too deserve unrelenting efforts and unstinting commitment to liberation. They deserve to come home.

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