The FARC, Colombia’s largest rebel group, declared Monday that the captured personnel were “prisoners of war” and demanded the release of prisoners and the reestablishment of a demilitarized safe-haven in exchange for their release. Officials said the U.S. would not negotiate with the FARC.
A communique posted on the FARC’s Web site on Feb. 24 declared, “the three gringo prisoners of war in custody of our organization will be freed along with other Colombian prisoners of war as soon as an exchange occurs between the FARC and the Government of President Uribe Velez in a large demilitarized zone.”
The FARC said the Americans — along with the dozens of kidnapped Colombian lawmakers and police officers held somewhere in the jungle of the FARC’s former demilitarized zone — would be set free if all jailed members of the leftist rebel organization were also released.
The three Americans, already held hostage for 12 days, were Defense Department contractors from Microwave California Inc., a satellite communications unit of Northrup Grumman.
The three men were captured on Feb. 13 after their single-engine Cessna 208 crashed in the southern province of Caqueta, the FARC’s stronghold. A fourth American, Thomas John Janis, a former officer in the U.S. military, and a Colombian military intelligence officer, Luis Alcides Cruz, were found shot in the head at close range near the scene of the crash.
U.S. and Colombian officials say the plane crashed due to engine trouble, but several witnesses in the area reported hearing gunfire and seeing rebels shoot down the aircraft. The plane was also riddled with rounds from an M-60 machine gun, a congressional source who has met with Colombian officials on this matter said Tuesday. The Colombian embassy in Washington declined comment.
The Cessna crashed while the Colombian military officer and the Americans were on an apparent intelligence mission, photographing Colombia’s southern coca fields. The FARC largely relies on coca cultivation and the narcotics trade to finance daily operations for its 39-year battle to overthrow the Colombia government, which it considers elitist and corrupt.
The FARC’s announcement came just hours before the Bush administration heightened a warning against travel to Colombia.
“Threats targeting official and long-term resident Americans are expected to continue and possibly increase in response to U.S. support for Colombian drug eradication programs,” the State Department’s advisory read.
“No one can be considered immune on the basis of occupation, nationality or any other factor,” the advisory cautioned, adding that U.S. journalists, missionaries and human rights workers have all been targeted for kidnapping.
“Since it is U.S. policy not to make concessions to, nor to strike deals with, terrorists, the U.S. Government’s ability to assist kidnapped U.S. citizens is limited,” the advisory said.
Some 3,000 people have been kidnapped in Colombia, the U.S. State Department noted.
Despite the warning, State Department spokesperson Philip Reeker reiterated Monday that the “FARC is responsible for the American crew members’ safety, health, and well-being.”
The Colombian military has mounted a large search-and-rescue operation to find the hostages, relying in large part on U.S. intelligence and surveillance flights over the mountainous region.
Over the past month, the number of U.S. military personnel and civilian contractors deployed to the region has increased as part of the Colombia Plan, the American multi-billion-dollar counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency program, Reeker told reporters Monday. A large number of U.S. personnel working on anti-narcotics missions are located at a southern Colombia air base in Florencia, where the Cessna was scheduled to land.
As of Jan. 13, nearly 400 American citizens were in Colombia to assist with anti-narcotics and counter-insurgency programs, according to a memo President Bush’s memo sent to Congress Feb. 20. The memo said that the American contingent was beginning its efforts to train Colombian authorities in anti-drug techniques.
Reeker on Monday noted the “plane incident… and the holding of [the three Americans] began as those training deployments were taking place.”
The FARC in its press statements has vehemently protested the increase of U.S. military personnel, calling it “another violation of our sovereignty with the complicity of the Colombian government.”
The group has also labeled all U.S. officials legitimate targets in its war against the Colombian government.