- The Washington Times - Friday, February 14, 2003

BOGOTA, Colombia, Feb. 14 (UPI) — The search continued Friday for the three survivors of the crew of a U.S. surveillance plane that crashed earlier this week in rebel held territory in southeast Colombia.

Two of the five-man crew are believed killed in the crash Thursday, while two U.S. citizens and one Colombian are still missing.

An enormous search and rescue operation was launched after the plane crashed at around 9 a.m. Thursday between the towns of Florencia and San Vicente del Caguan in the southeast of Colombia.

Rescuers quickly located the wreckage of the plane, but there was no sign of any survivors. The local press reported that rescue teams found two bodies at the crash site, both believed to be U.S. citizens.

A team was sent late Thursday to remove their bodies, but was forced to turn back because of difficult weather conditions. The location of the other three crew members remains unclear.

"There weren't any signs of their bodies or their kit," one of the rescuers told newspaper El Tiempo.

The plane — a Cessna Carnival — was on a reconnaissance mission to gather information about the activities of drug traffickers and rebel forces in the southern region. It crashed in an area where there is a strong presence of rebel leftist guerrillas, belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by their Spanish initials FARC.

There is growing concern that the three missing men could be in the hands of the FARC, which some reports suggested had fired on the plane.

Colombia's Armed Forces Command issued a statement late Thursday, however, saying the plane's pilot had radioed to report the plane was suffering technical problems, and that the crash was not a result of a FARC attack.

"The accident took place due to mechanical failure, and this has been duly confirmed, ruling out any other explanation," the statement read.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe held an emergency meeting with the commander in chief of the armed forces, Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora, Thursday night to discuss the implications of the accident.

"We have to proceed with great caution at the moment," Uribe said at the conclusion of the meeting. "This is what all the senior commanders have recommended."

The U.S. Embassy in Bogota has refused to release any details about the men's identity or their mission. Sources in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency have told the local press that none of their operatives were on the flight, however. Unconfirmed reports suggest the victims were contract workers employed by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The Colombian authorities have dispatched a military force to the crash site with the aim of locating and rescuing the missing crew members.

In other news Friday, at least 15 people are dead after a bomb exploded in a house in Neiva, apparently triggered by a morning police raid. FARC guerrillas were allegedly using the house to plan the assassination of Uribe.

According to details released by Colombian authorities, five police officers and a six-year-old girl were among those killed. More than 30 other people were injured, five houses were destroyed and more than two dozen damaged in the blast.

The rebels were allegedly planning to use mortars to shoot down Uribe's plane during his planned visit to the city Saturday. Colombian police said they were investigating whether the house was booby-trapped by the FARC.

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