Bogota Jet Crash Kills 107; Drug Link Claimed

From Associated Press

A Colombian jetliner crashed on the outskirts of Bogota shortly after takeoff Monday, and all 107 people aboard were killed. A caller to a radio station claimed drug traffickers bombed the jet.

Witnesses said the Avianca Airlines Boeing 727 exploded before it plunged into a hilly area south of the capital, about a mile from a neighborhood of slum houses and factories. Pieces of the jet were found up to six miles from the main point of impact, police said.

Hours later, a man called Radio Caracol and said that a group called "the Extraditables" blew up the jet to kill five police informants. He said the five gave information to police that led to the discovery of the hide-out of Medellin drug cartel leader Pablo Escobar.

The man did not identify himself, and the claim could not be independently authenticated.

The identities and nationalities of the passengers were not released. But a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Bogota said one U.S. citizen, Andres Escabi, was known to have been killed in the crash. He said Escabi, a native of Puerto Rico, also held Colombian citizenship and lived in Bogota.

"The plane was flying along when suddenly it exploded, broke in two and fell in flames and smoke," said a witness, Alfonso Moreno, in an interview with the radio network Caracol.

Flight 203 was bound for Cali, about 190 miles southwest of Bogota. Cali is the headquarters of one of Colombia's biggest cocaine cartels and has been the site of frequent bombings and other attacks since the government declared war on drug lords in August.

"I heard explosions, and I thought there was some problem with transformers in the electrical station, but I looked up and saw a plane explode in the air, and bodies and pieces of luggage were falling," said another witness, Mario Vasquez.

Two Colombian air force pilots in another plane reported seeing two explosions on the jet, said the director of Colombia's Civil Aviation Authority, Col. Jorge Gonzalez.

Investigators found no evidence of a bomb, said Col. Gustavo Leal, chief of national police for the province.

Radio Caracol said the flight recorder was found and civil aeronautics specialists were analyzing its data.

The plane took off from Bogota's El Dorado International Airport at 7:15 a.m., and the pilot, Jose Ossa, told the tower at 7:18 a.m. that everything was normal, Avianca spokeswoman Patricia Duarte said. It crashed shortly afterward.

Col. Leal said one piece of the jet was found six miles away. The RCN radio network said a body was found half a mile from the main crash site.

Police at the crash site said 120 people had been arrested for looting the bodies and stealing suitcases, packages and mail. Several of the looters were caught removing rings and gold chains from the corpses, police said.

The government of President Virgilio Barco declared war on drug traffickers in August, and since then there have been several bombings and other attacks, but none on a large scale.

"The Extraditables" is a shadowy group linked to the notorious Medellin drug cartel. The group takes its name from the U.S. Justice Department's list of 12 Colombian drug suspects most wanted in the United States. Escobar tops the list.

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