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Americans feared caught after crash in Colombia

©Associated Press
February 14, 2003

BOGOTA, Colombia -- A U.S. government plane carrying four Americans and a Colombian crashed Thursday in southern Colombia, and officials feared the survivors were captured by leftist rebels. Two bodies were spotted at the site, Colombian officials said.

Investigators with the state prosecutor's office saw the two bodies amid the wreckage of the plane, said the government office, which is responsible in Colombia for investigating deaths. U.S. Embassy officials said they had no comment on the report.

U.S. officials scrambled rescue teams to the sweltering plains of the region after the crash, but at least one report said rebels had captured the survivors and announced, "We have them! We have them!" in an intercepted radio transmission.

There was no statement from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Colombia's main leftist rebel group. A Colombian military official reported the transmission and said FARC rebels had apparently found the plane.

Earlier, the Colombian Armed Forces' high command had said rescuers had found only the burned plane and no people. It was impossible to immediately reconcile the report with the statement from the state prosecutor's office.

Colombia's two main TV news networks, RCN and Caracol, both reported that two of those aboard the plane had been killed.

U.S. officials refused to discuss the mission or identities of those aboard the single-engine Cessna, which went down as it approached Florencia, 235 miles south of Bogota, the capital. The high command said the plane was on an intelligence operation.

It was not clear which arm of the U.S. government operated the crashed plane. A host of U.S. agencies and government contractors are in Colombia. They operate radar stations that track drug-smuggling flights, fumigate drug crops with airplanes and assist Colombian security forces in other anti-drug operations. The Associated Press reported that those aboard the crashed plane were not Drug Enforcement Administration agents.

If the survivors were captured, it would mark the first time in Colombia's decades-long civil war that Americans on U.S. government business had been taken by the insurgents. Dozens of private U.S. missionaries and businessmen have been kidnapped by FARC and another rebel group, the National Liberation Army.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman said the plane crashed near Florencia "during an attempted emergency landing" just before 9 a.m. The spokesman said the cause apparently was engine failure.

Radio contact with the Cessna was lost eight minutes before its scheduled landing, according to Colombia's civil air agency, which said there were four Americans and one Colombian aboard.

The crashed plane's registration number is N1116G, according to the Colombian civil air agency. Records show the plane with that registration number was leased by One Leasing Inc.

Incorporation papers listed AAS Inc. of Hampton, Ga., as the incorporator for One Leasing. Ronald B. Powers, the president of AAS, Inc., told the Associated Press that the people leasing the plane asked him not to reveal their identities. He said he didn't know who was aboard the plane.

Florencia is near vast fields that produce coca, the main ingredient of cocaine, and is controlled by rebels and rival paramilitary groups.

Cropdusting pilots contracted by the U.S. State Department have been waging a massive fumigation campaign against the drug crops. But the State Department contractor, DynCorp, said its personnel were not aboard the crashed plane.

Still, DynCorp spokeswoman Caroline Longanecker said the company was helping with rescue and recovery. DynCorp maintains search-and-rescue teams aboard Black Hawk helicopters in its area of operations.

A Colombian military official said Colombian military Black Hawks were also being sent to the area, but then were ordered to return, with U.S. officials being in charge of the case.

The crash comes as Washington moves beyond simply fighting drug trafficking to helping the Colombian government directly battle the insurgents. U.S. special forces in eastern and central Colombia are training Colombian army troops in counterinsurgency tactics.

The area around Florencia is swarming with rebels. Florencia is the biggest town on the edge of a huge rebel safe haven that the Colombian government granted to the FARC at the end of 1998 as a site for peace talks.

The government revoked the sanctuary last year and canceled the peace talks after FARC rebels hijacked an airliner, forced it to land on a rural road and kidnapped a Colombian senator who was aboard.

The FARC and the National Liberation Army have fought the government and outlawed paramilitary groups in Colombia for nearly 40 years. About 3,500 people, mostly civilians, die each year in the fighting.

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