U.S. Plane Crashes in Colombia

Times Staff Writer

A U.S. government plane with three American contract workers aboard crashed late Tuesday in Colombia while participating in a rescue operation for three other U.S. government workers whose aircraft went down in the same area nearly six weeks ago.

The fate of the crew of the single-engine Cessna 208 that crashed Tuesday was unclear, but Colombian forces were on the scene of the wreckage soon after the plane went down around 7 p.m. local time near the southern town of Larandia, a U.S. government source said.

A Colombian military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to Associated Press, said the plane had been incinerated in the crash and that the burned remains of the three crew members appeared to be in the wreckage.

The area about 220 miles southwest of Bogota is dominated by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a leftist guerrilla group that claims to have captured three crew members from the first downed plane, which was also a single-engine Cessna 208.

The three aboard the plane that crashed Tuesday were seeking clues to the whereabouts of three employees of Maryland-based California Microwave Systems. They were working under contract with the U.S. Southern Command when their plane crashed Feb. 13 apparently during a surveillance mission to locate drug crops.

FARC rebels swarmed that plane minutes after it crashed, taking three people aboard hostage.

Colombian and U.S. authorities say the guerrillas killed two crew members, Sgt. Luis Alcides Cruz, a Colombian intelligence officer, and Thomas John Janis, 56, a decorated former U.S. Army officer who was working for the Maryland company.

The rebels later issued two communiques in which they confirmed that they were holding the men as hostages to exchange for some of the thousands of guerrillas now held in Colombian jail cells.

The U.S. and Colombia have mounted a massive search operation since the crash; some 3,000 Colombian soldiers have combed the remote, hilly region with the help of some 50 U.S. military and contractor intelligence specialists and technicians.

It was unclear what company the three people whose plane crashed Tuesday were working for, but it was not believed to be California Microwave Systems, which specializes in aerial surveillance.

What caused the crash was not known. The pilot of the first plane reported engine trouble before his plane went down.

At least eight contract workers, including three Americans, have been killed in Colombia since 1995, most of them in accidental crashes.

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