- The Washington Times - Friday, February 28, 2003

BOGOTA, Colombia Colombia's largest Marxist insurgency warned yesterday against any attempt to rescue three American prisoners who were captured while surveying coca fields for a Maryland-based Pentagon contractor.

"The prisoners of war of the FARC do run the risk of dying as a consequence of a cross fire between members of our guerrilla organization and units of the state security forces, if they attempt to rescue the prisoners by force of arms," said Raul Reyes, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Mr. Reyes' comments were delivered in writing to Noticias Uno, a TV news station in Bogota.

Two of the plane's passengers, Colombian Sgt. Luis Alcides Cruz and American Thomas John Janis, 56, a former U.S. soldier who earned a Bronze Star, were executed by FARC guerrillas immediately after their plane crashed earlier this month.

FARC confirmed the capture of the other three passengers, all Americans, and are now holding them hostage in exchange for the release of guerrillas in Colombian jails.

"The three gringo prisoners of war in the power of our organization will be freed along with the Colombian prisoners of war once an exchange occurs in a large demilitarized zone," said a FARC statement posted on its Web site on Monday.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and President Bush have rejected any notion of negotiating with the guerrillas for the release of the Americans and other FARC prisoners about 40 Colombian soldiers and policemen plus 20 high-profile Colombian politicians.

The Americans were on an intelligence mission for the U.S. Southern Command (SouthCom), which oversees operations in Colombia.

They worked for California Microwave Systems (CSM), a division of Northup Grumman, which is based in Belcamp, Md. and specializes in aerial surveillance.

Northrup Grumman confirmed in a statement this week that the contractors did work for CSM and are "currently missing."

The company said it was "deeply saddened" by the loss of one of its employees and the disappearance of the other three, but would not release their names.

"The thoughts of the entire corporation are with them and their families at this difficult time," a spokesman said.

According to a congressional Republican leadership aide, the men were surveying coca fields when their Cessna 208 crashed on Feb. 13.

"They're contractors working for the Department of Defense, specifically for SouthCom," the aide said. "They were on kind of a [coca] eradication survey."

Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, who came to Colombia to demand the Americans' release along with Reps. Mark Souder, Indiana Republican, and Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, said he would not be surprised if the mission also involved monitoring guerrilla movements.

Last August, Congress authorized U.S. troops to participate in anti-rebel efforts as well as counternarcotics missions.

"It was surveillance. It was intelligence gathering," Mr. Moran said in an interview. "They weren't taking a vacation over beautiful" Caqueta, he said.

SouthCom spokesman Steve Lucas would only say that the plane was permitted to perform anti-rebel activities under the new congressional mandate.

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