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Colombian Rebels Hold 3 Americans Hostage - 2003-02-22


Colombian rebels say they are holding hostage three Americans whose plane they say they shot down earlier this month. The rebels want Colombia's military to withdraw from rebel held areas in return for the Americans' safety.

Rebels say the Americans were spying for the Central Intelligence Agency when their plane was shot down February 13 over the southern region of Florencia.

In a statement broadcast on rebel radio, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) says they will only guarantee the lives of the three Americans if Colombia's military withdraws from the region.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says the men are not CIA agents but private civilian contractors working for the U.S. Defense Department. He refutes the rebel claim that the single engine Cessna was shot down, saying the best information the White House has is that the plane had engine trouble and was forced to crash land.

Mr. Fleischer would not comment on U.S. news reports that President Bush has sent 150 more U.S. troops to Colombia to help search for the Americans. He says the United States has "common cause" to work with Colombia's government to defeat the FARC, who Mr. Fleischer described as a dangerous terrorist organization well known for hostage taking.

With an estimated 17,000 fighters, the FARC is Colombia's biggest and best armed rebel group. It considers U.S. involvement in the country as an act of war and has warned in the past that it would attack U.S. citizens and U.S. interests in Colombia.

This is the first time that people working for the U.S. government have been captured in the 38-year civil war between leftist rebels and Colombia's right-wing paramilitary army.

Over the past three years, Washington has given the government $2 billion worth of assistance. Most of that is military funding that was initially aimed at anti-narcotic efforts. But Congress recently lifted restrictions on that aid to allow equipment and U.S. trained troops to confront FARC rebels directly.