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Hostages Languish as Public Interest Wanes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last trace of Ray Rising, a missionary from Minnesota, was his motorcycle. On March 31, 1994, it was found abandoned on a lonely road near a Colombian village that the electronics technician was helping with food and financial aid.

Mark Bossard went missing at a roadblock not far from the rural Colombian mine he was visiting three months ago. The American businessman, originally from Anaconda, Mont., was last seen being escorted away by five men in military clothing.

Donald Hutchings, a psychologist from Spokane, Wash., was on a holiday trek through the Himalayas in India’s Kashmir region when he disappeared last year on the Fourth of July.

Rising, Bossard and Hutchings are America’s forgotten people. They are the hostages of the 1990s. Their plight is a contrast to the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, when the detention of 52 Americans held this country hostage for 444 days and elevated the yellow ribbon to the status of a national symbol.

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In the late 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. public was so absorbed by kidnappings in Lebanon, Latin America, Italy and the Philippines that hostages became a centerpiece of three presidents’ foreign policies.

But the names of Mark Rich, Dave Mankins and Rick Tenenoff--who now rank as the three longest-held Americans--are virtually unknown. The missionaries were working with the Kuna ethnic group in Panama on Jan. 31, 1993, when 75 Colombian guerrillas launched a raid and took them--along with food, radios and equipment--back to Colombia.

“At the three-year anniversary of their abduction in January we held a remembrance. We contacted all the networks, but we couldn’t get one of them to pay attention. It was a non-story,” lamented Scott Ross, spokesman for New Tribes Mission, the Protestant evangelical group that sent the three to Panama.

The U.S. government has also been of little help, Ross and relatives of other hostages complain.

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“The public may believe that if an American is kidnapped you can go to the embassy and get help. That may be true of State Department and military folks, but for private individuals it’s up to that person, his family or his employer to work through the situation,” Ross said.

Members of Florida-based New Tribes have felt impotent in dealing with the crisis--a common reaction among the colleagues and loved ones of hostages taken in the 1990s.

The current hostage sagas are occurring in a different world, experts say. In part, the tactic may simply have lost its shock effect.

“One of the questions you have to ask is whether hostage-taking has become banal. Maybe terrorism itself has become ordinary, a part of the political landscape,” said Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at Kroll Associates, an international security firm. At a time when massive car bombs explode in crowds and sarin nerve gas is spewed in the Tokyo subway system, perhaps “actions at the level of kidnappings no longer have much impact,” he said.

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The January 1994 abductions of two other New Tribes missionaries from a school they ran in the eastern Andes mountains received scant attention. Seventeen months later, the bodies of Timothy Van Dyke of Towanda, Pa., and Steve Welsh of North Platte, Neb., were discovered after a firefight between rebels and Colombian troops.

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Another change is the lack of a significant foreign policy dimension. From 1979 to 1991, the Beirut and Tehran hostages were diplomatic pawns. Some victims were U.S. symbols, such as U.S. Brig. Gen. James L. Dozier, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization official abducted in Italy by the ultra-left Red Brigades in 1981, and William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut who was seized in 1984. Dozier was rescued after 42 days; Buckley died in captivity.

Today the causes are less riveting. Most targets are taken simply for the money.

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The Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), Colombia’s oldest and largest rebel group, demanded $5 million for the three New Tribes missionaries. Hostage-taking has become a profitable business in Colombia, which has replaced Lebanon as the country with the greatest incidence of kidnappings.

In the 1990s, at least 10 Americans have been seized by assorted Colombian rebels who have been waging war for decades. Five of the six Americans now held worldwide are in Colombia.

And they’re not isolated cases. At least 179 foreigners have been seized in Colombia over the past five years, and dozens of Colombians are nabbed every month, Jenkins said.

As in Lebanon, the chaos in Colombia has given captors great freedom to take whomever they please. Many families don’t bother reporting abductions anymore. Some hostages have even been kidnapped more than once.

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Hutchings is the only current American captive held for political reasons. Along with American John Childs, two Britons, a German and a Norwegian, Hutchings was captured in July by Al Faran, a shadowy Muslim group fighting for the secession of Jammu and Kashmir, the only majority Muslim state in predominantly Hindu India.

Childs escaped within four days; the Norwegian was found beheaded in August. In exchange for the remaining four Westerners, Al Faran has demanded the release of imprisoned brethren.

In a videotape reminiscent of the Beirut hostage-takings, Hutchings was shown pleading with the U.S. and India to help, warning that his life was at stake. Al Faran sent word last year that one of the hostages, reported by the local press to be Hutchings, was ailing.

But U.S. policy is to make no concessions to terrorists, which offers little solace for current hostages but which keeps others from being abducted, officials maintain.

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“The most important lesson we learned from Ollie North’s shenanigans is that it never pays to give in or to feel you can do a deal with the captors. It only raises the price of hostages,” a senior U.S. official said, referring to the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, in which the U.S. negotiated an arms-for-hostages swap with Iran.

Some believe that the number of groups inclined to take hostages is smaller these days. Political and economic transformations in the 1990s have diminished the number of rebel cells and extremists engaged in anti-government actions or campaigns to gain notice.

Only a handful of groups--Colombia’s FARC and National Liberation Army, India’s Al Faran, the Philippines’ New People’s Army and Abu Sayyaf group and Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party--are tied to the majority of kidnappings.

But the new environment offers limited options to end abductions altogether. Rescue is often out of the question, a senior counter-terrorism official said. In Colombia, for example, FARC rebels have pledged to kill hostages if rescues are attempted; in the case of Welsh and Van Dyke, they kept their word.

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For the U.S. government, the prime option is to do nothing about the abductions. But that course is so painful that, although they rarely admit it, the employers or families of several Americans held in Colombia have paid the ransoms, according to counter-terrorism experts.

The New Tribes Mission, however, has held out. “We have 3,500 missionaries around the world. If we paid once we’d be paying ransoms all over the world,” Ross said.

In desperation, the mission has resorted to dropping leaflets over locations where FARC operates. And just before Easter this year, the wives of Rich, Mankins, Tenenoff and Rising went back to Colombia to win the men’s release. While they did not achieve that goal, they did learn that the men were alive.

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