Two bodies in wreckage were shot, officials say

Saturday, February 15, 2003

FLORENCIA, Colombia -- The bodies of an American and a Colombian found amid the wreckage of U.S. government plane in Colombia had suffered gunshot wounds, Colombian officials said Friday. President Alvaro Uribe said the two had been "murdered."

The single-engine Cessna plane -- carrying four Americans and a Colombian -- went down Thursday in rebel territory in southern Colombia. Three other occupants of the plane are missing and are feared to be in rebel hands. Rescue crews discovered two bodies in the wreckage and retrieved them.

"There were various bullet impacts on the two bodies," Alonso Velasquez, director of the attorney general's office in Florencia, told The Associated Press. He said he did not know if the gunshots wounds were the cause of death.

According to one report, rebels quickly arrived on the scene of the plane crash and captured the survivors.

Uribe lamented what he called the deaths of "two people aboard the plane -- a sergeant in our army and an American citizen -- whose murder has been confirmed in the south of the country."

The Colombian president made his comments in a speech inaugurating a hydroelectric plant in western Colombia. He did not elaborate on his statement on the deaths.

It was unclear if the two men had been hit by groundfire while in the plane, or had been shot after the crash.

The Americans were contractors for the U.S. military's Southern Command, which oversees military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean, U.S. government officials said in Washington. The U.S. Embassy in Bogota said the plane crashed eight minutes before its scheduled arrival in Florencia, a provincial capital.

Colombian troops and U.S. officials continued their desperate search Friday for the survivors. Authorities feared they had been captured by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the nation's largest leftist rebel group. DynCorp, a U.S. State Department contractor involved in anti-drug missions in Colombia, said on Thursday that they were helping in the rescue effort.

Four Colombian soldiers involved in the rescue effort were reported injured by rebel land mines.

"The rebels have a large part of the area mined to stop troops from coming in," said Capt. Lida Zambrano, spokeswoman for the Colombian army's 12th Brigade.

Army troops patrolled the main road in the region, hoping to intercept the rebels if they tried to move the men out of the area by road. The army also closed the road between the towns of El Doncello and Puerto Rico -- near where the plane was believed to have crashed -- for several hours late Thursday, local resident said.

"All night long we heard helicopters," said Janet Jimenez, 21, a clerk at a corner cafe in the village of La Esmeralda. "There are a lot of army troops here."

The U.S. Embassy would not identify those aboard the plane, or say who they worked for or why they were in the region, an area largely controlled by the FARC. Plantations of coca -- the main ingredient of cocaine -- are prevalent in this region of humid plains and jungle-covered mountains.

The United States has backed a massive campaign to locate and destroy the drug crops with aerial fumigation.

Washington is now moving beyond simply fighting drug trafficking -- which provides profits for rebels and right-wing militias -- to helping the Colombian government directly battle the insurgents.

U.S. special forces in eastern and central Colombia are training Colombian army troops in counterinsurgency tactics and Washington is planning to share intelligence on the rebels with Colombia. Dozens of companies have contracts with the U.S. government to maintain radar stations that track drug flights, fly crop-dusting planes that destroy drug crops and provide other services to Colombian security forces.

Some of the contractors work at the Larandia military base, near Florencia.

The FARC and the National Liberation Army have fought the government for nearly 40 years. About 3,500 people, mostly civilians, die each year in the fighting.

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