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Colombian Soldiers Search for Americans

February 16, 2003|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, Colombia — Army soldiers backed by U.S. intelligence and U.S.-made helicopters swarmed the jungles of southern Colombia on Saturday in search of three American government contract workers apparently kidnapped by leftist rebels.

By late in the day, Colombian military commanders had found no sign of the men, whose single-engine airplane crashed Thursday after suffering a mechanical failure during a joint U.S.-Colombian flight over rebel-held territory.

Two other crew members, an American and a Colombian army sergeant, were shot and killed, apparently by rebels, near the scene of the crash close to the small town of Puerto Rico, about 220 miles south of Bogota.

"The operations are developing in an intense manner," Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora, commander of Colombia's armed forces, told reporters Saturday. "The objective is recovering the three men."

U.S. Embassy officials did not identify those missing or the dead American, who were all civilians working under contract with the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in Latin America. The state coroner's office was conducting forensic examinations of the bodies in Bogota on Saturday.

The exact nature of the men's mission remained unclear, as did the company they were working for, but the U.S. government uses contractors for a wide variety of services in Colombia, from maintaining helicopters to spraying and mapping drug crops to improving infrastructure in impoverished areas.

Colombian military officials have said the Americans were working with the Colombians on an "intelligence mission."

The men crashed in a region largely under the control of one of the most powerful fronts of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. If the FARC kidnapped or killed the Americans, it would mark the first time the group has taken such extreme measures against U.S. employees. Rebels have previously kidnapped U.S. businessmen and citizens.

Speculation was rampant about what the FARC might do with three Americans. Since peace talks broke down a year ago, guerrillas have kidnapped a series of high-profile Colombian officials to force an exchange for the 3,000 rebels estimated to be held in Colombian jails.

Leon Valencia, a political analyst who was once a commander with another leftist rebel army, said the FARC might hold the men for ransom because they worked for a private company. He said he doubted the rebels would harm them, because they would be more valuable alive.

"They'll take a lot of precautions with them," Valencia said. "The Americans are a gift for them that fell from the sky."

Other analysts said the FARC would see kidnapping the men as a natural response to increased U.S. involvement in this country's conflict.

The war pits the Colombian government and right-wing paramilitary groups against the FARC and other leftist rebel groups. After the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., Washington lifted rules that had restricted $2 billion in aid in the previous several years to counter-narcotics activities. Colombia supplies 90% of the cocaine sold in the United States.

For the FARC, "this conflict has already been internationalized," said Fernando Cepeda, a political analyst who has closely followed the rebels. "This is not anything new for them."

U.S. State Department and congressional officials have become increasingly worried about the safety of contractors in Colombia as the U.S. becomes more involved in the fighting here.

Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee, asked the State Department in November to change government restrictions to allow a special Colombian police anti-kidnapping unit to use counter-drug helicopters.

"The use by the U.S.-trained anti-kidnapping forces of these counter-narcotics helicopters for kidnapping cases, especially high-priority situations involving U.S. citizens, certainly would be appropriate," Paul Kelly, the department's assistant secretary for legislative affairs, wrote in supporting Hyde's request.

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