- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2003

Rebels kill 2 officials, 8 soldiers BOGOTA, Colombia — Authorities yesterday announced the deaths of two senior government officials in a botched rescue attempt, raising fears for the safety of at least 67 other rebel hostages, including three U.S. Defense Department contractors.The government said the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) killed Antioquia Gov. Guillermo Gaviria and his peace commissioner, Gilberto Echeverri, along with eight soldiers it had been holding captive for years.The rebels reportedly executed the men after hearing approaching helicopters making a rescue bid about 10 a.m. on Monday.Three captives survived — an army captain and sergeant and a navy submarine commander. They were in stable condition yesterday at Medellin hospitals.In a televised statement from his hospital bed, Capt. Enrique Viellard Hernandez, kidnapped in 1999, said that a FARC leader known as “El Paisa” told his followers not to leave anyone alive after he heard a military helicopter overhead.The government said it received information in February that the hostages, kidnapped at a peace rally in April 2002 not far from where their corpses were found on Monday, were being held at a jungle camp on the border between the departments of Antioquia and Choco. The location was confirmed by new intelligence last week.The operation was planned for six days before the Rapid Deployment Forces and a special forces army unit were given permission to move on the camp.Seventy-five soldiers descended by rope from helicopters about half an hour’s walking distance from the camp. But by the time they arrived, the captives were dead and the guerrillas had fled.This account was broadcast to the country in a rare act of openness on Monday night, with detailed operational details given by Gen. Alberto Ospina, the commander of the armed forces, and Hernando Ortiz, the commander of the Rapid Deployment Force.In a defiant and emotional speech, President Alvaro Uribe vowed to continue his aggressive war on terror despite the setback.”It is a moment of extraordinary sadness for the nation,” he said. “The FARC committed another enormous massacre, a genocide. … In this moment of pain, Colombia cannot surrender.”But the botched rescue attempt has dimmed hopes for a prisoner exchange with the FARC, which wants to swap at least 67 high-profile prisoners — including the three American contractors and ex-Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Bentancourt — for hundreds of guerrillas held in Colombian jails.Just before the rescue effort on Monday, Mr. Uribe announced conditions for such a deal. He said the effort must be overseen by the United Nations, a condition the FARC has yet to accept, and that any freed guerrillas must be deported to a friendly country like France, which has not agreed to such a move.But analysts said that after Monday’s debacle a humanitarian accord was further away than ever.Alfredo Rangel, a respected defense analyst, said he believes the three Americans could remain in FARC captivity “for years.”After their capture when their plane crashed in the FARC stronghold of Caqueta on Feb. 13, the three Americans were put on a list of people to be included in a prisoner exchange. But the U.S. government has refused to negotiate with terrorists.A massive manhunt, involving thousands of Colombian soldiers and at least 50 American Green Berets, has been under way but no significant progress has been reported.

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