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Colombian Rebels Claim to Find Plane

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Rebels in northeast Colombia found a small commercial airplane that mysteriously disappeared from Venezuela radar screens 10 days ago and will release its 14 passengers without charging ransom, a top guerrilla commander said Sunday.

Members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Colombia’s oldest and largest insurgent group, found the twin-engine plane and its occupants in Arauca state, which borders Venezuela, rebel commander Jorge Briceno said on the radio.

After the plane’s disappearance July 30, Venezuelan authorities said they strongly suspected that it had been hijacked by drug traffickers and taken to Colombia, which supplies about three-fourths of the cocaine sold in the U.S.

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Colombian military officials accused the FARC of the hijacking. Many FARC units work closely with drug traffickers, charging an estimated $600 million a year in “taxes” to protect coca plantations.

“The plane was hijacked by people opposed to the government of [Venezuelan] President [Hugo] Chavez,” Briceno said. Beyond that, he offered no explanation for the motives behind the hijacking.

He added that at least two passengers fled when the rebels approached the plane. A Venezuelan military officer was believed to be on the flight.

The insurgents learned July 31 that a plane had made a “clandestine landing” in territory under their control and came across the hijacking victims when they went to investigate, Briceno said. Calling the captives “hard-working and honorable,” he said the 14 would be released “and will arrive in their country by various routes.”

The pilot and co-pilot flew the plane to its original destination, Guasdualito, a Venezuelan town near the Colombian border.

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