US Special Forces search for CIA men

7th Special Forces Group (ABN)
Mon 17 February 2003 

JEREMY MCDERMOTT IN MEDELLÍN  with The Scotsman

A HUGE military operation was underway in the jungles of southern Colombia yesterday in an effort to rescue three US intelligence officers taken hostage by leftist guerrillas. 

But with every passing hour yesterday the chances of finding them grew less. "They fell straight into the wolf’s mouth," said one of the officers leading the search. 

About 4,000 men, including both US and Colombian special forces, supported by helicopters and spy planes, were scouring the jungles of Caqueta for some trace of the three Americans. 

Their capture by the 18,000-strong FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) three days ago is a potentially damaging blow both for the US military operation here and the credibility of the hard-line Colombian government. 

The three in guerrilla custody were the lucky ones. There were four Americans, all "contract workers" for the CIA, and a Colombian intelligence official on board the Cessna aircraft forced to make an emergency landing after engine failure. 

The pilot managed to land the plane safely, some 30 miles short of the airport of Florencia, the capital city of the southern province of Caqueta. Almost as soon as the men got out of the plane, guerrillas of the FARC surrounded them. 

When the Colombian, Sgt Luis Alcides Cruz, and one American, James Thomas, tried to resist abduction they were shot in the head and the chest by the rebels. The remainder did as their guerrilla captors bade and disappeared in to the jungle after the rebels ransacked the plane and then torched it. 

The men were on an anti-drug intelligence mission, most likely conducting aerial photographs of drug crops that proliferate in Caqueta and the guerrilla camps in the area. 

Three days after their kidnapping, the chances of rescuing the Americans were slim. The FARC have dominated this part of Colombia for decades and the only trails through the jungles here are those they themselves have cut. 

It seems likely the men have already been taken out of the region, slipping through the net the security forces have tried to draw around the crash site, hindered at every turn by rebel ambushes and mine fields. The question is what the guerrillas do with their prize hostages. "They’ll take a lot of precautions with them," said Leon Valencia, a demobilised guerrilla commander. "The Americans are a gift for them that fell from the sky." 

The three could be added to more than 60 politicians and security force officers the FARC have kidnapped. The guerrillas have said they will only be released in exchange for hundreds of rebels in Colombian prisons. They could be held for ransom, as the guerrillas make million of pounds every year from kidnappings and could ask an extortionate ransom for the Americans. 

The FARC have no love for the US, which regards the guerrillas as a drugs trafficking and terrorist organisation, and has included them in President Bush’s "international crusade on terrorism". In response to this the FARC have declared US personnel "military targets" and vowed to fight "yankee imperialism". 

In the aftermath of 11 September , the US has waded deeply into the 39-year civil conflict in Colombia, giving more than £300 million a year of aid to this battered Andean nation and deploying up to 400 military personnel and an equal number of "contractors", most ex military and many with links to the CIA. At the moment 70 US special forces personnel are training Colombian troops in counter-insurgency techniques in the eastern province of Arauca. 

This is the first time any American personnel have fallen into the hands of the rebels. Three US citizens were murdered by the FARC in 1999, their hooded corpses found by the Venezuelan border, bearing signs of torture. But the three were volunteers working with indigenous tribesmen. 

The US has refrained to comment yet on the incident except a brief statement from US State Department spokesman Charles Barclay: "We have reliable information that the crew have been captured by the terrorist organisation the FARC. If this is correct we demand their immediate liberation." 

Their capture is not only a setback for the Americans, but for Colombian president Alvaro Uribe. He has other problems to deal with, namely the FARC’s urban terrorism campaign. 

In the last nine days there have been two massive explosions in cities. The first on 7 February was the destruction of Bogotá’s most exclusive social club with a car bomb, which left 35 dead and more than 150 wounded. On Friday a police patrol was lured to a house in the southern city of Neiva after an anonymous tip-off. When they broke into the house it exploded killing 17 and wounding 35. 

"This is a very tough time for the country, but we must stay strong," President Uribe said. "I am very sorry about the death of Sergeant Cruz and the American killed by the FARC after their plane crash." 

The FARC are seeking to undermine the aggressive security policy of the Oxford-educated Uribe, which has the support of Washington.


COLOMBIA: YEARS OF CONFLICT 

1993 - American intelligence tracks the mobile phone of drug lord Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellín cartel, allowing police to shoot him as he tried to flee across the rooftops from a safe house in Medellín. 

1994 - The US visa of President Ernesto Samper is revoked after evidence that he accepted £4 million in campaign contributions from the Cali drug cartel. Colombia is decertified as an active partner in the war on drugs, and loses US aid. 

1998 - Washington embraces the new president, Andres Pastrana, and aid starts to flow again. 

1999 - Three American activists are kidnapped by the FARC and later their bodies are found dumped. 

2000 - President Bill Clinton delivers almost £1 billion in aid for the war on drugs and US special forces begin training three elite Colombian anti-narcotics battalions 

2002 - President George Bush lifts the restrictions on US aid, which had been limited to the anti-drugs fight, and allows it to be used directly against Colombia’s warring factions. 

2003 - US special forces begin training Colombian troops in counter-insurgency tactics in the eastern province of Arauca.

Copyright © 2003 The Scotsman

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