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Colombian Rebels Say They're Holding 3 Americans

Hostages from crashed plane will remain safe, statement warns, only if rescue efforts cease.

February 23, 2003|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, Colombia — Leftists guerrillas issued a statement Saturday acknowledging for the first time that they are holding three U.S. government contractors who crashed in a plane in rebel-held territory 10 days ago.

Saying they shot down the aircraft Feb. 13, rebels with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, referred to the three kidnapped Americans as "CIA agents."

The rebels demanded the immediate cessation of rescue efforts in a small area surrounding the crash site in the mountains of southern Colombia. The communique made no mention of the two other crew members, an American and a Colombian intelligence official, whose bodies were found near the crash site, shot at close range.

"We will guarantee the life and physical integrity of the three gringo officials in our power only if the Colombian army immediately suspends military operations and overflights," read the statement, which was posted on the group's Web site and signed by its ruling junta.

The rescue efforts are backed by more than 150 U.S. Special Forces troops whom President Bush sent to Colombia last week after using his executive authority to waive a congressionally mandated cap of 400 U.S. troops in the war-torn nation.

The decision to send in the troops, first reported by the Washington Post on Saturday, brought to 411 the number of U.S. military personnel currently operating in Colombia. More than 200 U.S. troops already were in the country on a variety of missions, including training Colombian troops to defend an oil pipeline used by Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum.

There was no immediate response from the Colombian military to the rebels' demand. Last month, however, President Alvaro Uribe ruled out a cessation of military operations to allow a rescue mission to retrieve two freelance journalists kidnapped while on assignment for The Times. U.S. Embassy officials said they were aware of the rebel statement but had no response.

The search for the kidnapped American contractors continued Saturday, and there were signs that the Colombian effort had managed to corral the rebels in a small area.

The FARC asked for the military to suspend its operations around eight villages near the crash site, about 220 miles south of Bogota, the capital. The area lies just north of a military base that is the center of counter-narcotics operations and has large contingents of both U.S. Special Forces trainers and contractors.

Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora, head of the Colombian armed forces, told reporters Friday night that rescue operations were focused entirely within the province where the plane crashed -- an area a bit larger than Maine. Colombian troops reached the scene within an hour of the crash, giving the rebels, who usually travel on foot, little time to flee.

"We have the hope that we will be able to return the three people safe and sound," Mora said.

The American contractors were working under contract for the U.S. Southern Command when their plane crashed in a remote area after reporting engine trouble.

The mission of the flight remains unclear, but the U.S. uses contractors in a variety of missions in Colombia, from mapping and spraying fields of coca, the source of cocaine, to helping maintain helicopters and radar stations.

In Crawford, Texas, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said the FARC statement only confirmed what has been known for at least a week.

"It's a reminder that FARC is a terrorist organization -- how dangerous they are, how they are well known for hostage-taking and trying to bring harm to the civilian population of Colombia," Fleischer said. "That's why the United States stands shoulder to shoulder with the people of Colombia to rout the FARC."

He repeated that "there has been no evidence to support the claim that [the airplane] was shot down. All our information is that it was engine trouble."

One of the plane's wings was shot through with holes, but Colombian officials believe that it was hit while crash-landing. After the crash, the guerrillas immediately captured the men and led them away.

*

Times staff writer Maura Reynolds in Crawford contributed to this report.

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