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Man pleads not guilty in taking of hostages in Colombia

- The Washington Times - Monday, March 12, 2012

An accused member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was arraigned Monday in federal court in Washington following his weekend extradition to the U.S. on charges of hostage-taking and terrorism.

Alexander Beltran Herrera, 35, also known as Rodrigo Pirinolo, is accused of being involved in the 2003 seizure of three American hostages, who were rescued five years later by Colombian commandos.

Mr. Beltran Herrera pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit hostage taking; hostage taking; using and carrying a firearm during a crime of violence; conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists; and conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization.

He was arraigned before U.S. District Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth. Prosecutors described Mr. Beltran Herrera as a "fairly high ranking" FARC member.

Lisa Monaco, assistant attorney general for national security, said in a written statement Mr. Beltran Herrera's extradition "underscores our resolve to hold accountable all those responsible for this crime and we will not rest until every one of them is brought to justice."

The FARC, which has battled the Colombian government since the mid-1960s, has characterized American citizens as "military targets." The State Department designated the group as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997.

The indictment alleges that Mr. Beltran Herrera was a member of the 27th Front in the FARC's Southern Block, where he was involved in the hostage taking of three U.S. citizens — Marc D. Gonsalves, Thomas R. Howes and Keith Stansell.

The three, along with Thomas Janis, also a U.S. citizen, and Sgt. Luis Alcides Cruz, a Colombian citizen, were seized in February 2003 by the FARC after their single engine aircraft made a crash landing near Florencia, Colombia. FARC members killed Mr. Janis, the pilot, and Sgt. Cruz at the crash site.

According to the indictment, the three surviving men, all defense contractors, were held by the FARC at gunpoint and told by its leaders they would be used as hostages to increase international pressure on Colombia's government to agree to the FARC's demands.

Throughout their captivity, the indictment said, FARC jailors and guards used choke harnesses, chains, padlocks and wires to bind the hostages' necks and wrists to prevent their escape, and constructed in the jungle a large barbed-wire concentration camp to hold the Americans and dozens of other civilian hostages.

The indictment also accuses Mr. Beltran Herrera of using and carrying a military-type machine gun during the hostage taking and of providing material support and resources to aid in the hostage taking and to aid the FARC.

The three Americans were among 15 international hostages rescued in July 2008 by Colombian commandos disguised as rebels, who tricked the guerrillas into turning over their captives.

Mr. Gonsalves, Mr. Stansell and Mr. Howes were conducting counter-drug aerial surveillance in southern Colombia when their Cessna aircraft experienced engine failure and was forced to make an emergency landing on a remote mountainside where a large contingent of FARC guerrillas was gathered.

As Colombian rescue efforts intensified in later years, the indictment said, the FARC members forced the hostages to move long distances to avoid government forces, including a grueling 40-day march while carrying heavy backpacks through dense jungle.

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