- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 15, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 15 (UPI) — The State Department confirmed Saturday that three Americans who survived a small plane crash landing in Colombia have been taken hostage by rebels.

It marks the first time in Colombia's 39-year-old civil war that an American working for the U.S. Government has been kidnapped.

The Cessna Carnival single-engine plane came down Thursday in a southeast area of the country dominated by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by their Spanish initials FARC.

"We have reliable report that these crewmembers are being held by the terrorist group FARC," State Department spokeswoman Brenda Greenberg told United Press International. She said the plane made an emergency landing, apparently because of engine trouble.

"We demand the crewmembers be released unharmed immediately. We will continue to work with the government of Colombia in the search and rescue effort."

Two other people aboard the surveillance plane, a fourth American and a Colombian, were shot dead. The executed bodies were found about a mile from the wreckage. "They have been taken to the Colombian military base in Larandia for positive identification," said Greenberg.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe said the two men were shot "in cold blood," according to the British Broadcasting Corp.

An enormous search and rescue operation including Colombian military helicopters and American rescue specialists was launched after the plane crashed early Thursday between the towns of Florencia and San Vicente del Caguan, about 230 miles south of the capital, Bogota.

U.S. officials have declined to reveal the identities of the kidnapped Americans aboard the plane "out of concern for the safety of the crew members and those involved in the continuing search and rescue operation."

"Embassy personnel have been to the wreckage…to join the investigation of the U.S. counter-drug aircraft," the State Department spokeswoman confirmed. A team was sent late Thursday to remove their bodies, but was forced to turn back because of difficult weather conditions.

The plane was on a reconnaissance mission to gather information about the activities of drug traffickers and rebel forces in the southern region. Colombia's Armed Forces Command issued a statement late Thursday saying the pilot had radioed to report the plane was suffering technical problems, and that the crash was not a result of a FARC attack.

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