Sat Feb 22, 2003
||Two passengers were found shot near the wreckage of their crashed plane.
Since the crash, more than 2,000 Colombian soldiers have been scouring the rugged terrain in the southern
Columbia in search of the Americans, whom the communiqué identified as CIA agents.
The Colombian army said rescuers reached the site within half an hour of the crash and found the executed bodies of the other two men -- a Colombian and an American -- near the wreckage of the incinerated plane.
BOGOTA, Colombia - Leftist rebels on Saturday acknowledged for the first time that they shot down a U.S. plane and are holding hostage three Americans they accuse of being CIA (news - web sites) agents. The White House sent 150 soldiers to join the search for the captives.
The Americans were on a U.S. government plane on an intelligence mission when it crashed on Feb. 13. A fourth American and a Colombian army sergeant were shot and killed at the site.
"We can only guarantee the life and physical integrity of the three gringo officials in our power if the Colombian army immediately suspends military operations and overflights in the area," the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said in a statement.
Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora, Colombia's top military commander, rejected the rebel demand and said the search for the three Americans would proceed in the mountains and jungles of southern Colombia.
"We have hope that we'll be able to get these three people back safe and sound," Mora said, adding that Colombian counterdrug troops who have been trained by American Green Berets and U.S.-donated helicopters were being used in the search.
President Bush (news - web sites) ordered an additional 150 U.S. soldiers to Colombia to help in the search, Pentagon (news - web sites) officials said Saturday. U.S. officials already have been assisting with intelligence information.
The deployment will bring to more than 400 the number of U.S. troops in the South American nation, and will deepen Washington's involvement in the civil war, which has lasted nearly four decades.
The rebels claimed they shot down the aircraft, contrary to assertions by the U.S. and Colombian governments that the single-engine Cessna went down because of engine trouble, and said the three Americans were CIA agents.
The Americans were on an intelligence mission when it crashed, Colombian Defense Minister Martha Lucia Ramirez has said. U.S. defense officials deny the Americans worked for the CIA and say the men were contractors for the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in South America and the Caribbean.
The Bush administration demanded Saturday that the three Americans be freed and declared it holds the rebels responsible for their safety.
This marks the first time in more than 20 years that U.S. government employees have been killed or captured in the conflict, which pits the FARC and a smaller rebel army against the government and a handful of outlawed right-wing paramilitary groups. About 3,500 people, mostly civilians, die in the fighting every year.
The rebels kidnap hundreds of people a year in Colombia for money and political leverage. The FARC currently is holding about two dozen politicians and 45 soldiers and police officers, one of whom has been a hostage for more than five years.
The bodies of the two slain men were found about a mile from the plane, Carolina Sanchez, spokeswoman for the Colombian attorney general's office, said Saturday. The American had been shot in the head while the Colombia was shot twice in the chest. Autopsy reports showed that the bullets were fired from a distance of less than 2 yards, Sanchez said.
The rebels' demand specified that the military must halt operations and overflights in a 387-square mile area of southern Colombia's Caqueta state.
The 17,000-strong FARC considers U.S. involvement in Colombia an act of war and has warned that it would attack U.S. citizens and interests in the country.
Washington has given Colombia roughly $2 billion in mostly military aid in the past three years. The aid was initially limited to fighting drugs, but the restrictions recently were lifted to let Colombia use the equipment and U.S.-trained troops to confront the rebels directly.
U.S. troops are in the country training soldiers. The U.S. Congress in 2001 limited the number of U.S. troops in Colombia to 400, but allowed the president to exceed that number for emergency search and rescue operations.
Bush's order to deploy 150 more troops put the total in Colombia over the 400 limit, Defense Department officials said without giving an exact number.
The State Department has appealed to the captors for proof that the Americans are alive. The Colombian government on Thursday offered a $345,000 reward for information leading to their safe return.
By MICHAEL EASTERBROOK, Associated Press Writer
Copyright 2003 Associated Press
Bush Uses Exemption On Colombia Forces
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 22, 2003; Page A21
President Bush this week used his authority to exceed congressional limits on the number of U.S. military personnel allowed to be in Colombia, sending as many as 150 additional specialized troops to assist in the rescue of three American civilians believed to be in the hands of guerrillas since their plane crashed in a rebel-held area last week, senior administration officials said.
For the moment, officials said, the troops' mission is to provide additional intelligence and guidance to Colombian military forces trying to locate and rescue the Americans and their captors in a mountainous jungle region about 220 miles southwest of Bogota. Asked whether U.S. forces would attempt a rescue themselves, an official said, "We would have the capacity to do that."
Officials declined to specify the units of the newly deployed troops. U.S. Special Forces trainers previously assigned to Colombia have also been assisting in the search for the men, who have been described as Defense Department contractors working on counterdrug operations.
The Colombia action is the latest in a series of deployments that have expanded the U.S. military mission across the globe. In addition to more than 180,000 troops in the Persian Gulf region awaiting a possible war against Iraq, Pentagon officials said Thursday that about 3,000 troops were being sent to the Philippines to engage in a major anti-terrorism offensive.
The Bush administration last year extended the U.S. military mission in Colombia from anti-drug activities to assistance in the country's long-running counterinsurgency wars. It justified the change, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with the designation of Colombia's right-wing paramilitary army and two leftist guerrilla groups as international terrorists on legal par with the al Qaeda terrorist network, the Abu Sayyaf organization in the Philippines and dozens of others outside of Latin America.
The change allowed U.S.-supplied equipment and intelligence, and American-trained Colombian troops, to be used in counterinsurgency operations for the first time. The United States has provided nearly $2 billion in largely military assistance to Colombia since fiscal 2001; the 2003 budget just passed by Congress adds approximately $500 million.
Despite the altered military mission, however, limits on the number of U.S. troops in Colombia have been retained. They were first imposed with the initial installment of major counterdrug assistance in early 2001, after Congress expressed concern that the United States would slip into a Vietnam-like quagmire there. None of Colombia's rebel groups has ever been known to launch an attack directly against U.S. targets or outside Colombia's boundaries or immediate border area.
Under the restrictions, which were renewed by Congress for the current year, no more than 400 U.S. military personnel can be present in Colombia at any given time, and the president must regularly report to Congress on their "aggregate number, locations, activities and lengths of assignment." U.S. citizens working under U.S. government contract are also limited to 400.
Since the limits were initially imposed, the number of both military and civilian personnel has always hovered around 250 each, and the limits have never before been exceeded. The most recent reporting period ended in mid-January, and Bush reported to Congress on Thursday that there were 208 military personnel and 279 contract workers in Colombia as of that date.
The restrictive legislation specifies that it does not limit presidential authority to "carry out emergency evacuation of U.S. citizens or any search-and-rescue operation for U.S. military personnel or U.S. citizens." It is under this provision that the additional military personnel were sent this week, officials said, bringing the total as of yesterday to 411.
A bipartisan group of House and Senate staffers was briefed Thursday by State and Defense Department officials on what one official yesterday called the "state of play" concerning the three Americans.
They were traveling in a group of five, including one Colombian military intelligence official, in a single-engine Cessna belonging to the Pentagon on Feb. 13. While passing over a rebel-held region in the south, the plane reported engine trouble and then crashed. Colombian soldiers arriving on the scene found the plane riddled with bullets, but said that was not the cause of the crash. Less than a mile from the plane, the bodies of one American and the Colombian were found. Both had been shot.
Although Bush said in a Telemundo interview Wednesday that the death of one of the victims was "clearly an execution," U.S. officials said yesterday that initial autopsy reports indicated they had been shot while fighting or "trying to bolt" from their presumed captors, rather than executed.
Speaking to Telemundo, a Spanish-language TV network, Bush agreed, without specifying which man he was referring to: "One man had a bullet hole in the back of his head -- clearly an execution. We are dealing with cold-blooded killers that need to be treated as cold-blooded killers."
U.S.-obtained intelligence has indicated that the three remaining Americans, whose names have not been released, are traveling with a group of rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC. Officials said the Colombian military was trying to keep the guerrilla group in a relatively confined area of about 37 square miles and to prevent their traveling deeper into rebel territory. But their exact location is said to be unknown, and officials said they were constantly on the move.
Colombian Defense Minister Martha Lucia Ramirez said yesterday that Colombian troops would attempt to rescue them only if the risk of their being killed was "practically nothing," the Associated Press reported from Bogota. Ramirez said Colombia was working closely with the United States "to identify the place where these citizens are and hopefully be able to conduct a rescue operation."
The Americans, whose capture the FARC has not yet claimed, would be the first U.S. government employees in guerrilla possession.
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