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McCain finds himself stage front in Colombia

Wednesday's rescue in Colombia of three U.S. military contractors and politician Ingrid Betancourt from guerrillas came as Sen. John McCain was visiting the South American nation.
/ Source: NBC, and news services

Wednesday's rescue in Colombia of three U.S. military contractors and politician Ingrid Betancourt from guerillas came as U.S. presidential candidate John McCain was visiting the South American nation.

The timing didn't hurt the Republican presidential candidate, who has long touted his foreign policy experience as being much stronger than that of Democratic rival Barack Obama.

McCain said Wednesday that he had been briefed about the mission the night before by Colombia President Alvaro Uribe, along with two other U.S. senators traveling with him — Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham. McCain had left Colombia and was on his campaign plane en route to Mexico when he learned about the success of the mission.

And though he mentioned the hostages during his public appearances in Colombia Wednesday, he didn't let on he knew what was happening with them, NBC News' Kelly O'Donnell reported.

He discounted any suggestion by reporters later that the timing of the hostages' release was anything but a coincidence.

"I would remind you that these things require incredibly long planning and coordination, etc. I am — there's no way possible that it could have had anything to do with our visit, that I could imagine," McCain said.

'Sign of confidence'?
But Lieberman said Uribe's willingness to brief the senators in advance of the operation was significant.

"I think it was a sign of confidence of President Uribe and the defense minister in Senator McCain — and maybe in the two of us — that they were prepared to share this information last night, which was highly classified, " Lieberman said. "They were quite detailed about what they were trying to do, and thank god they succeeded."

The rescue is the most serious blow ever dealt to the 44-year-old Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which considered the four hostages its most valuable bargaining chips. FARC is already reeling from the deaths of key commanders and the loss of much of the territory it once held. In recent months, FARC has also seen the surrender of many of its soldiers.

Among those freed Wednesday were 11 Colombian soldiers and police, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said.

The Americans — Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell — were being flown to the United States from a military base in central Colombia. In a call Wednesday to Uribe, President Bush called him a "strong leader," according to White House national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe. He said Uribe in turn thanked Bush for his support, which has included billions of dollars in military aid.

Key American assistance
U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA and National Security Agency, played a role in locating the hostages by providing resources and equipment, NBC News reported. According to Pentagon officials, the U.S. military provided helicopters that airlifted the three Americans and Betancourt to safety but did not participate directly in the operation.

A senior U.S. military official told NBC News Wednesday that there had been about a half dozen "close ones" before the successful rescue. The U.S. "has been involved since the beginning" with "dozens of people working it full" and U.S. military aircraft flying "more than 4,000 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sorties in support of the effort," the source said.

McCain said it wasn't unusual for him to be briefed ahead of such an operation, even as a presidential candidate. "I have been informed as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee of plans for years and years and years that are going to be carried out either by the United States or our friends and allies."

He said the focus should now turn to the other hostages still being held by FARC.

While McCain on Wednesday found himself in the middle of the action, Obama also weighed in on the hostages' release from the United States. He praised Colombia's longtime strategy of making no concessions to the FARC, instead using "intelligence, military, law enforcement, diplomatic, and political power to achieve important victories against terrorism."

Obama added that he "will do everything that I can to assure the success of future efforts to free the FARC's hostages and to defeat this terrorist organization."