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American contractors among hostages rescued with Betancourt

  • Story Highlights
  • Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell set to return to U.S. on Wednesday
  • The men were kidnapped in 2003 during an aerial counternarcotics mission
  • Men appeared in a video on CBS' "60 Minutes" a few months after their capture
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(CNN) -- The relatives of three U.S. government contractors who were rescued in Colombia rejoiced as the men boarded a plane home Wednesday.

Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell are expected to arrive around 11 p.m. ET at Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.

The men are among 15 hostages, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, that the Colombian military rescued Wednesday from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

"I didn't even know what to do," said Kyle Stansell, Keith's son, who said he was on the beach when his stepfather called with the news. "I just started freaking out -- screaming, yelling. I ran as fast as I could off the beach." Video Watch Stansell children react to the release »

The FARC kidnapped the three men, who worked for Northrop Grumman Corp., after their plane crashed in a remote region of the country in February 2003. Video Watch a report on what FARC wants »

The contractors were conducting a joint U.S.-Colombian aerial counternarcotics mission when their aircraft made a forced landing because of mechanical failure. FARC members patrolling the area reached the aircraft and killed two crew members before taking the three captive.

"As far as we know, everything's going fine," Kyle Stansell said. "I just want to see my dad." Video Watch CNN's John Zarrella report »

The FARC, which has been fighting with the Colombian government and other paramilitary groups for decades, defends the taking of captives as a legitimate act of war. The group is thought to be holding about 750 prisoners in the nation's remote jungles.

Adm. James Stavridis, commander of the U.S. military's Southern Command, has kept a picture of the three hostages on his desk since taking command in 2006. He said their release has been one of his goals.

"You could hear the cheers throughout the building when we announced the success of the rescue," he said. "This is a day of enormous joy for Marc, Keith and Tom and their families."

Several months after their capture, a Colombian journalist filmed the three men at a rebel camp, where FARC commanders branded them CIA spies and prisoners of war.

"To our country, we miss you, and we hope we return one day. We're alive and well," said Stansell, then 38, a systems analyst.

"We expect to get out of here one day. We can't say for sure," said Howes, then 50, a professional pilot. "But our main concern is the welfare of our families."

"I'm a proud American," said Gonsalves, then 31, also a systems analyst. "I look to you guys, and I ask for a diplomatic solution to get us home safe, please."

The video was shown on CBS' "60 Minutes."

"It has been a very trying experience, to say the least, not knowing how he is doing, what he is doing," George Gonsalves, Marc's father, said at the time.

"You think every year is going to be the year," he said. "That is what I thought last year, and certainly I'll hope for that this year."

Earlier this year, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former presidential candidate and U.S. ambassador, met with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the request of the contractors' families.

The U.S. government considers the FARC a terrorist group and has refused to negotiate with it while publicly urging the group to release the Americans.

"We have supported and continue to support any credible initiative by any leader or organization, in coordination with the government of Colombia, to achieve the safe recovery of all of the hostages," the U.S. State Department said in a written statement in February marking the fifth year of their captivity. "Our thoughts and prayers remain with the hostages and their loved ones."

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On Wednesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on the FARC to release its remaining hostages.

"We hold the FARC responsible for the health and well-being of all hostages," she said in a written statement. "We commend the government of Colombia for its sustained efforts to secure the safe return of all FARC hostages. Our thoughts and prayers remain with those still held by the FARC and their loved ones."

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