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A Colombia revelation on eve of visit

March 11, 2007|From the Associated Press

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — On the eve of a visit by President Bush, the United States Embassy confirmed Saturday that American and Colombian soldiers had conducted a joint operation in the southern stronghold of leftist rebels who are holding three U.S. military contractors.

The rare confirmation followed a report by Colombia's largest newspaper, El Tiempo, that two area residents were interrogated about the contractors' whereabouts by the U.S. and Colombian soldiers after the operation in late January.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Marshall Louis said that "U.S. personnel accompanied Colombian forces in the south and that's all I can say about it."

The U.S. military's rules of engagement bar its soldiers from combat operations in this conflict-scarred nation but permit them to accompany host nation troops in areas where guerrillas operate and to defend themselves if attacked.

By law, the United States can have no more than 800 military personnel in Colombia at any time.

Their mission is mostly training, logistics and intelligence support for Colombian operations against guerrillas and drug traffickers.

Marc Gonsalves, Tom Howes and Keith Stansell were captured by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in February 2003 when their surveillance plane went down in a rebel stronghold in the country's south.

The fate of the hostages is expected to be on the agenda today when Bush meets with President Alvaro Uribe in Colombia, which receives more than $700 million a year in U.S. aid, most of it military.

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