HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Colombian Rebels Kill U.S. Civilian
Pubdate: Sat, 15 Feb 2003
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2003 The Washington Post Company
Author: Scott Wilson


Three Still Missing After Crash 

BOGOTA, Colombia, Feb. 14 -- Rebels shot and killed an American civilian
working on anti-drug operations for the Pentagon and a Colombian soldier
when their plane crash-landed Thursday in the southern jungle, U.S.
officials said today. Three other American civilians on the plane were
missing at the remote site in a region dominated by Colombia's largest
guerrilla organization.

The two bodies were found close to the plane's wreckage near the town of
Puerto Rico, in Caqueta Province, about 220 miles south of Bogota, the
Colombian capital, U.S. officials said. One man was shot in the head and the
other in the chest. The fate of the three others on board the Cessna 208 was
unknown. U.S. officials said they hoped the Americans survived and were able
to elude capture by rebel forces operating in the mountainous area.

There was no specific word on what the U.S. contract personnel were doing on
Thursday morning when their pilot radioed an airport tower in Florencia,
about 25 miles from the crash site, that they were experiencing engine
trouble. The pilot reported he was looking for a place to put the plane
down, but the airport tower lost radio contact with him soon afterward.

While U.S. sources said the aircraft was outfitted for "photo
reconnaissance," it was not known if the plane was conducting such
operations. U.S. officials said the crew members, four Americans and a
Colombian, were working on anti-drug operations over Colombia's southern
coca fields.

A Defense Department official in Washington confirmed the men were civilians
employed by the Pentagon as contractors, but added that they were detailed
to work for the U.S. Embassy. Typical operations on such flights includes
locating and targeting coca plantations for later eradication by Colombian
troops. The Washington Post incorrectly reported Friday that the four
Americans were civilian contractors employed by the CIA.

U.S. Embassy officials arrived in Florencia, the provincial capital, to lead
an air search-and-rescue operation that was hampered by a surge of fighting
in the area between Colombian troops and members of the Revolutionary Army
Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, the nation's largest Marxist-oriented
guerrilla organization. Investigators from the Colombian attorney general's
office said they were unable to reach the crash site because of security
concerns. U.S. officials said surveillance aircraft and Colombian transport
flew missions above the region of rolling pasture and jungle-covered
mountains. Colombian air and ground units gave some cover for the search
operations, Colombian officials added.

The region has been the focus of a $1.3 billion U.S. aid package that has
given Colombia more than 80 transport helicopters, training for a new
military brigade and intelligence assistance designed to attack a drug trade
that provides 90 percent of the U.S. cocaine supply.

U.S. Embassy officials said that Pentagon personnel were not involved in any
search-and-rescue operations on the ground, although U.S. pilots were among
those looking for the missing Americans. U.S. military advisers here are
prohibited from accompanying Colombian troops on operations. But U.S.
officials said they have the right to defend themselves if attacked, and
many trainers are stationed on bases in Colombia's war zones. "We've got
people into the area, and we've gotten good support from the Colombian
military," said Chip Barclay, a spokesman for the State Department's Western
Hemispheric Affairs department. "U.S. assets are being used in the search
and rescue, and in the investigation."

In passing a Colombian aid package in 2000 known as Plan Colombia, Congress
limited the number of civilian and military contractors working in the
country at any given time to 400 of each, a ceiling U.S. officials say they
have not come close to exceeding. U.S. government contractors fly aerial
herbicide spray planes over Colombia's coca fields, photograph drug crops
for targeting and tracking and train helicopter pilots. They also work on
programs designed to encourage coca farmers to trade illegal crops for legal
ones. Recently, restrictions on U.S. aid have been eased so that it can be
used to help the Colombian military fight the rebels.

Plan Colombia is managed by Colombia's Joint Task Force South, which
operates two military installations near the crash site and southern
Colombia's richest coca regions. About 25 U.S. Special Forces trainers are
based in Larandia, an army post about 25 miles from Puerto Rico.

The 18,000-member FARC gets a major source of its war chest from a tax it
imposes on coca fields it protects in the area. The FARC, classified by the
State Department as a terrorist organization, has declared U.S. government
operatives to be legitimate targets in their 39-year war against the
Colombian state.

The capture of U.S. government officials or their employees could be a boon
for the FARC, which is seeking an agreement with the hard-line government of
President Alvaro Uribe that would lead to the release of some of its
imprisoned members.

In recent months, the FARC has been trying to trade a group of kidnapped
lawmakers for a number of its mid-level commanders held in Colombian
prisons. But the exchange effort has foundered in recent days, and some
political analysts here say the FARC would use any captured Americans to
increase pressure on Uribe to make the deal.

"It's a likely eventuality," said Alfredo Rangel, a military analyst and
adviser to Colombia's defense ministry. "That would immediately include the
United States at the negotiating table over a prisoner exchange, and greatly
complicate matters for the government."
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