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Colombia undeterred by failed rescue effort

A poll released Thursday shows the public still backs a hard-line approach toward rebels.

By Rachel Van DongenSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 9, 2003


As a flight attendant for Colombia's Avianca airlines, Patricia Medina met a lot of travelers. But American Keith Stansell caught her eye.

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"We saw each other, and it was love at first sight," says Ms. Medina, a Colombian living in Bogotá, in an emotional interview. "What woman wouldn't fall in love with Keith? He has everything."

That was a year ago. Now Medina is eight months pregnant with Mr. Stansell's twin boys, one of whom she plans to name after his father. But she doesn't know if Stansell, a contractor for the US Defense Department, will be there for his sons' birth.

Since his plane crashed Feb. 13 while surveying coca crops in Caquetá, he and two other Americans are somewhere in the Colombian jungle, held by leftist rebels. The rebels are using the three Americans and dozens of other hostages as trade bait to try to free jailed guerrillas.

But a botched rescue attempt of 13 other hostages on Monday that left 10 dead has dimmed hopes for the early return of Stansell. He was potentially part of a prisoner exchange that could have freed 67 high-profile hostages, including the three Americans. Analysts now say that this "humanitarian accord" is in serious jeopardy.

After six days of preparation and months of gathering intelligence, Colombia's rapid deployment forces and the Army's special forces unit moved Monday morning on a jungle camp believed to be holding Antioquia Gov. Guillermo Gaviria and Defense Minister Gilberto Echeverri, who were kidnapped during a peace rally in April 2001.

But according to the account of three survivors, as soon as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) heard the Army's helicopters approach, a rebel dubbed "El Paisa" gave the orders to kill everyone in the camp. By the time the rescue team arrived - anywhere from 30 to 40 minutes later - they found 10 corpses and no guerrillas.

President takes responsibility

The rescue effort dealt a blow to popular President Alvaro Uribe, who has been waging an aggressive war against the FARC. Mr. Uribe took full responsibility for the failed rescue in a television appearance late Monday, but his government vowed to continue its hard-line approach against the rebels.

"When we have the chance to rescue somebody, we will...." said Vice President Francisco Santos on Wednesday. "There are three [hostages] alive. For me, the operation was a success in that sense."

Prior to the rescue attempt, a hostage-for-prisoner plan, a process that was developed last fall had been gaining momentum in recent weeks.

"Now the possibilities of a humanitarian exchange are very remote," says Alfredo Rangel, a Colombian defense analyst. "The government doesn't have any margin in which to maneuver."

No deals with terrorists

After their capture in February, Stansell and his two colleagues, Mark Gonsalves and Thomas Howes, were included on the FARC's prisoner-swap list, though the US has refused to negotiate with "terrorists." A massive manhunt, including thousands of Colombian soldiers and at least 50 American Green Berets, is under way for them, but there has been no significant progress.