BOGOTA, Colombia — Leftist Colombian rebels holding three U.S. government contract workers declared Monday that the Americans are "prisoners of war" who will be released only as part of a larger deal freeing thousands of imprisoned guerrillas.
The rebels demanded that the Colombian government provide a demilitarized zone for any hand-over and denounced a decision by the U.S. to send Special Forces troops to Colombia to rescue the men.
"The three gringo prisoners of war in the power of our organization will be freed along with the Colombian prisoners of war once an exchange occurs in a large demilitarized zone," said a statement posted on a Web site operated by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials as the FARC.
The FARC's position potentially complicates any deal to free the men, who were working for the U.S. Southern Command on a joint Colombia-U.S. intelligence mission when their plane crash-landed in rebel-held territory 220 miles south of Bogota, the capital, on Feb. 13. Two others on the plane, an American and a Colombian, were shot dead by the rebels.
The FARC has been trying since the collapse of peace talks last year to win freedom for the estimated 3,000 guerrillas being held in Colombian prisons. The group has kidnapped prominent Colombians in an attempt to force an exchange.
Although President Alvaro Uribe's government has softened its stance against a swap, the guerrillas' efforts have so far been in vain.
Monday's announcement, however, showed that the rebels hope to step up the pressure by making the kidnapped Americans part of a deal.
"This is going to delay things," said Leon Valencia, a political analyst and former member of another leftist rebel group. "The guerrillas have chosen to take the political route instead of demanding money."