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Soldiers search for missing Americans

©Associated Press

February 16, 2003

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Hundreds of Colombian soldiers and U.S.-donated Black Hawk helicopters scoured rebel territory Saturday for three Americans allegedly kidnapped by rebels after their plane crashed while on an intelligence mission, the army said.

Rebels killed an American and a Colombian army sergeant who were on the plane, the country's top military commander, Gen. Jorge Mora, said.

The U.S. aircraft was on an intelligence mission when it went down Thursday in a drug-producing area crawling with fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The pilot of the single-engine Cessna had reported engine trouble.

The United States has pumped almost $2-billion in mostly military aid into Colombia in the past three years, support that the FARC has called an act of war. The rebels have threatened to target American officials and interests.

Colombia's government has long favored a stronger U.S. role and analysts speculated Saturday that officials might use the killing and kidnapping of the Americans and two deadly bomb explosions to lobby for more help from Washington.

The State Department said it had "reliable information" that FARC had kidnapped the Americans. The 16,000-strong rebel group is waging a 38-year insurgency against the Colombian government.

On Saturday, 1,000 Colombian soldiers assisted by U.S.-made helicopter gunships normally reserved for drug-fighting missions searched for the Americans near the village of Doncello in Caqueta province 210 miles south of the capital, Bogota, army commander Gen. Carlos Alberto Ospina said.

U.S. officials were lending logistics support and intelligence information to the effort, Ospina said.

The names of the Americans have not been released, and a U.S. Embassy official declined comment Saturday on the search.

URIBE VISITS CITY WHERE BOMB EXPLODED: President Alvaro Uribe defied alleged rebel threats on his life Saturday to visit the southern city of Neiva where a bomb killed 18 people the day before by ripping through a house as police searched for weapons.

Uribe offered condolences to relatives of those killed in the blast, which authorities said might have been caused by explosives intended for a plot to kill the president during his weekend visit to the city.

The dead included three children, and nine police officers and a government investigator who were searching the house when the bomb exploded.

Uribe visited victims' relatives at a funeral home and hospital and called the rebels "cowards." He was expected to end Saturday's meeting early to attend a funeral for victims.

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