How best to win US hostages' release?

The case of three captives in Colombia, held since 2003, tests the Bush administration's 'no negotiation' policy.

Patience is wearing thin for Gene and Lynn Stansell.

The Florida couple's son is one of three American hostages held by a narco-terrorist group in the Colombian jungle and the Stansells say they believe the US government's refusal to negotiate with the group is the reason that the three have been held for more than four years.

President Bush's "policy of just not negotiating with terrorists has just gotten this country into a mess and, unfortunately, our son is in the middle of this," says Lynn Stansell. "How are you ever going to come up with any political or humanitarian exchange if you never talk to these people?"

Their case is raising anew the question of whether the US should negotiate with terrorists. The men have been held longer than any other US hostages, military officials say.

Mr. and Mrs. Stansell's son, Keith, and two others, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves, have been held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, since February 2003, when their plane, on a counternarcotics mission for the Defense Department, went down in Colombia in FARC-controlled territory. Their case is not well known by the American public. That is in part because they were taken captive in the month before the invasion of Iraq. Also, the Bush administration's strategy for securing their release appears to be more focused on a military rescue than public diplomacy with the group that would generate publicity.

But on Tuesday, there was a sign that the US Justice Department wants to negotiate a peaceful resolution. A US federal court has convicted Ricardo Palmera, a leftist paramilitary commander considered a leader of the FARC, on some charges for conspiring to take the US hostages. Mr. Palmera, also known as Simon Trinidad, faces decades in prison. US Justice Department officials say they would consider a lenient sentence for Palmera if the three Americans are released, according to the Associated Press. US officials deny that the overture is a negotiation of sorts, but simply an attempt to seek cooperation as they would in any criminal case.

"Our priority has always been the release of the hostages," the wire service quoted Assistant US Attorney Kenneth Kohl as saying Tuesday. "If they were released, say, next week, we would take that into consideration."

The case has had its share of notable developments. Last year, members of the FARC reached out to celebrities including actor Denzel Washington, director Oliver Stone, and filmmaker Michael Moore to convince the US government to exchange imprisoned guerrilla fighters for some of its hostages, including the three American contractors. That effort went nowhere. The biggest development occurred in April, when another prisoner at the same camp, a Colombian policeman held by the FARC for nine years, escaped from his captors and reported that the three Americans were alive and being treated well. It was the most convincing "proof of life" the families of the hostages have had in four years. The escapee met with the Stansells and other family members this past weekend.

The FARC has often offered to return the 60 or so hostages it has in captivity – which include the three Americans – if the US and Colombian officials release some of the FARC rebels both countries are holding in prison. But from the beginning, the US government has refused to negotiate with the FARC, saying the approach would send a dangerous message to other would-be kidnappers. The Bush administration's tack is summed up by US Rep. Michael Conaway (R) of Texas, who traveled to Colombia in May and was briefed on the matter. "Once you start down that path, then every State Department employee in the world is at risk of being taken," he says. "You don't negotiate with terrorists; you don't negotiate with those guys."

The situation is also closely monitored at Northrop Grumman, the defense contractor the three were working for when they were taken captive. The company does not support a military rescue for fear that it could put the lives of its employees and the other hostages in jeopardy. Instead, it would like to see the US and Colombia agree to release rebels held by both countries in return for the safe release of the hostages, a position at odds with the US government with which it does much business.

"We continue to closely monitor news media reports from Colombia and elsewhere concerning the prospect of a humanitarian exchange that might result, at long last, in freedom for our three co-workers," says Jack Martin Jr., a spokesman for the company in Maryland.

Researcher John Aubrey contributed to this report.

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