HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html 5 Missing After U.S. Plane Goes Down In Colombia
Pubdate: Fri, 14 Feb 2003
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2003 The Washington Post Company
Author: Scott Wilson
Note: Karen DeYoung contributed to this report. 


BOGOTA, Colombia, Feb. 13 -- A U.S. government aircraft crashed in southern
Colombia today after its engine failed. The fate of the four Americans and
one Colombian on board remained uncertain as night fell in the
guerrilla-controlled zone where the plane went down.

Colombian military officials said two unidentified bodies were found at the
crash site and they warned that the passengers and crew may have been taken
captive by members of the country's largest leftist guerrilla group, which
regards U.S. government personnel as legitimate targets. The four Americans
on board the Cessna 208 were contract employees of the Central Intelligence
Agency at work on an anti-drug operation in the area, U.S. officials said.

Colombian soldiers arrived at the rugged crash site near the provincial
capital of Florencia within 30 minutes of the 9 a.m. crash. Officials raised
the possibility that members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia,
a Marxist guerrilla group known by its Spanish acronym, FARC, could have
arrived before the government troops and taken away any survivors. Officials
also acknowledged that it was possible that the men set off on their own,
knowing they were in a guerrilla zone. 

Although the exact location of the crash was not disclosed, Colombian
officials said the flight control tower lost contact with the pilot over the
airport at the town of Puerto Rico, 220 miles south of the capital, Bogota.
U.S. officials said the pilot told air traffic controllers that the plane's
engine had stalled, and that he was trying to glide to the airport. Radio
contact was lost soon afterward.

The town is just outside a 16,000 square-mile swathe of pasture and jungle
that former president Andres Pastrana ceded to the FARC in 1998 as an
incentive to begin peace talks. Those negotiations collapsed a year ago
without yielding results, and Pastrana's successor, Alvaro Uribe, has
increased the military presence in the area.

One of the FARC's most potent military fronts operates between Puerto Rico
and Florencia, a 25-mile-long territory bordering steep, jungle-covered
mountains that provide cover for the guerrillas. Colombian military
officials reportedly dispatched five Black Hawk helicopters -- likely among
those donated by the United States under a $1.3 billion aid program -- in
support of the search-and-rescue mission.

The FARC has opposed the U.S. aid package and said repeatedly that it would
consider U.S. government operatives to be legitimate military targets. The
guerrillas earn millions of dollars a year protecting drug crops in southern
Colombia. Eradication of those crops has been a chief goal of U.S. military
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