Small U.S. plane crashes in rebel-held territory

Friday, February 14, 2003

BOGOTA, Colombia -- A U.S. government plane carrying four Americans and a Colombian crashed Thursday in southern Colombia, and officials feared the survivors were captured by leftist rebels. Two bodies were spotted at the site, Colombian officials said.

Investigators with the state prosecutor's office saw the two bodies amid the wreckage of the plane, said the government office, which is responsible in Colombia for investigating deaths. U.S. Embassy officials said they had no comment.

U.S. officials scrambled rescue teams to the sweltering plains of the region after the crash, but at least one report said rebels had captured the survivors and announced, "We have them! We have them!" in an intercepted radio transmission.

There was no statement from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Colombia's main leftist rebel group. A Colombian military official reported the transmission and said FARC rebels had apparently found the plane.

Earlier, the Colombian Armed Forces' high command had said rescuers had found only the burned plane and no people. It was impossible to immediately reconcile the report with the statement from the state prosecutor's office.

Colombia's two main TV news networks, RCN and Caracol, both reported that two of those aboard the plane had been killed.

U.S. officials refused to discuss the mission or identities of those aboard the single-engine Cessna, which went down as it approached Florencia, 235 miles south of Bogota, the capital. The high command said the plane was on an intelligence operation.

It was not clear which arm of the U.S. government operated the crashed plane. A host of U.S. agencies and government contractors are in Colombia. They operate radar stations that track drug-smuggling flights, fumigate drug crops with airplanes and assist Colombian security forces in other anti-drug operations. Sources said those aboard the crashed plane were not Drug Enforcement Administration agents.

If the survivors were captured, it would mark the first time in Colombia's decades-long civil war that Americans on U.S. government business had been taken by the insurgents.

Dozens of private U.S. missionaries and businessmen have been kidnapped by FARC and another rebel group, the National Liberation Army.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman said the plane crashed near Florencia "during an attempted emergency landing" just before 9 a.m. The spokesman said the cause apparently was engine failure.

Earlier in the day, prior to the sighting of the bodies, an embassy spokesman said that the fate of the pilot, co-pilot and three passengers aboard was unknown.

Radio contact with the Cessna was lost eight minutes before its scheduled landing, according to Colombia's civil air agency, which said there were four Americans and one Colombian aboard.

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