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U.S. Hostages Told Reporter of Anger

A journalist who went into Colombian rebel territory to speak with the Americans says they think their government has not done enough.

September 14, 2003|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, Colombia — Three American defense contractors held captive by leftist rebels have told a journalist that they fear they would be killed in a rescue attempt and lashed out at the U.S. government for ignoring their plight.

In an interview in July at a rebel camp deep within the Colombian jungle, the three Americans said heavily armed rebel guards were constantly posted five yards away.

"This isn't Hollywood," Thomas Howes told Colombian journalist Jorge Enrique Botero during an hourlong interview that provided the first evidence they were alive since their capture seven months ago. "A rescue attempt would be sure death."

Two American freelance producers who are working with Botero said they hoped to sell a documentary using the footage to an American news network.

They said that despite their fear of a rescue attempt, the men expressed deep anger, saying the U.S. government has not done enough to free them. The U.S. has ruled out direct talks with the rebels, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which the State Department lists as a terrorist organization.

"There's a lot of frustration,'' said Karin Hayes, a Los Angeles-based documentary producer collaborating with Botero. "They feel like they have heard nothing and that [their captivity] has been swept under the rug."

Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves were seized by FARC rebels in February after their plane developed engine trouble and crashed in rebel-held territory in southern Colombia.

Two others on the plane, U.S. military veteran Thomas John Janis, 56, and Colombian intelligence officer Luis Alcides Cruz, were executed by the rebels after they resisted capture, the U.S. and Colombian governments said.

The men were contractors for Maryland-based California Microwave Systems, a Northrop Grumman subsidiary working for the Defense Department to detect and map fields of coca, the raw material of cocaine.

The U.S. Embassy in Colombia released a statement Friday saying the United States seeks "to obtain the safe release of the American hostages without making concessions to the terrorists holding them."

U.S. officials have not explicitly ruled out a rescue attempt, although they have said any such effort would be made by Colombian troops. Under hard-line President Alvaro Uribe, the Colombian military and police have become increasingly aggressive about rescuing hostages. Although most are successful, a botched attempt in May resulted in the FARC killing 10 hostages.

Rebels have said that the men are political prisoners and will be released only in a larger exchange for guerrillas held in Colombian jails. Initial talks are going on between the rebels and the Catholic church.

Botero, who is famous in Colombia for his contacts in the rebel group that date to his days as a student leader in the 1970s, said in an interview Saturday that it took him 11 days of hard travel in Colombia's Amazon region to reach the men. He said he passed more than 20 rebel camps forming a ring of security around the men.

He said the men told him that they were in good health, despite the threat of malaria and a flesh-eating disease caused by a local parasite. The men, who are being held together, spend much of their time playing cards and wondering when they will be freed.

They have been held in complete isolation during their captivity, and knew nothing of the war in Iraq until Botero showed them some newspapers. He also brought them a John Grisham novel to read.

The men said they get up early, eat three meals and then go to sleep again. They also made videotaped messages to be shown to their family in the United States.

"Every day is terrible, not because of abuses or anything like that. They feed us every day. They treat us well," said Howes, 50, who was co-piloting the aircraft when it crashed.

Hayes, the Los Angeles producer, and her partner, freelance journalist Victoria Bruce, 37, have taken the video and shown the personal messages to the family members.

Hayes said they met Botero while making another documentary on kidnapped Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, which is going to be shown by HBO next winter.

The two filmmakers turned over the parts of the video containing the hostages' personal messages to the FBI after being threatened with subpoenas, Hayes said. U.S. officials have said they are analyzing the tape to search for hidden clues.

One of the most emotional parts of the video comes after the men learn on camera that three other California Microwave Systems employees, some of whom were close friends, were killed in March when their plane crashed during a search.

In one part of the video, Hayes said, the men also questioned the safety of the planes they were flying, customized Cessna 208s loaded with high-tech spy gear. Last year, California Microwave Systems employees said the planes were not adequate for use in Colombia's mountainous terrain.

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