By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 3, 2007 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today he discussed with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe the situation of three American hostages held in Colombia by guerilla fighters. Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes, all U.S. government contract employees, were kidnapped here more than four years ago by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a revolutionary militant group operating in the country's underdeveloped regions. The FARC kidnapped when their airplane crashed in the jungle.
Gates said he discussed the hostage situation with the president and the possibility of a humanitarian agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC.
"I think we had a good conversation. I know that Colombia is doing everything in its power to secure the release of the hostages and anything we can do to help this process we would be happy to contribute," Gates said at a press conference.
Gates said that Uribe assured him that there would be limits to any agreement made with the militant group.
"I think any opportunity that comes along that creates an environment in which the FARC will make that decision (to release the hostages) is to be examined very closely. I know that the President Uribe has assured me that there are limits of what he will and will not agree to as part of this possible agreement and I'm satisfied with those limits," Gates said.
"Everybody has to realize at the end of the day that is FARC's decision," he later said to the Pentagon press corps in a round-table discussion. The rebels are holding several hundred hostages of other citizenship.
"Any effort that would lead to the safe release of the hostages is worth considering," Gates said in the session.
There was some discussion concerning the exchange of two FARC leaders in U.S. custody, he said.
"The president and I had a discussion about how counterproductive it is to release convicted criminals in exchange for hostages. And I cited a couple of examples from Afghanistan about how that can be a vicious cycle," he said.
Even after an elaborate demonstration at a military training site today of the Colombian special forces' hostage rescue techniques, Gates called any rescue attempt for the three "a very iffy proposition."
Gates said that the first objective is the safe return of the hostages.
"Any attempt at a rescue would have to be very, very carefully thought through and the circumstances and the quality of the intelligence," he said.
"Every thing would have to be just right. Priority has to be on the safe return of the hostages. My view is that it probably requires more patience," he said.