Colombia undeterred by failed rescue effort

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

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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

"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.

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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.

The American Embassy in Bogotá declined comment on what effect the failed rescue might have on the American hostages. In a release, State Department spokes-man Richard Boucher said that the US was "appalled" and "deeply saddened" by the "cold-blooded murders" of Governor Gaviria and Mr. Echeverri and the eight kidnapped soldiers.

The European Union has also condemned the killings.

Family members of the kidnapped, including the deceased-governor's wife, Yolanda Pinto de Gaviria, have long been pushing for a prisoner exchange. Now, they are angry, condemning the bungled rescue effort and calling even more urgently for an accord.

In an extraordinary appeal, Ms. Pinto pardoned the guerrillas who assassinated her husband during a radio interview on Wednesday. She said she would continue fighting for a deal with the FARC.

"We have to pardon. It is the only road to reconciliation. I will continue fighting to construct that road, as my husband would have wished," she told RCN radio.

"Please, abstain from military operations" in the case of kidnapped Sen. Ingrid Betancourt, pleaded her husband, Juan Carlos Lecompte, on local television and in the newspapers.

But with her twins due in just one month, Medina held a different view. "The first option is a humanitarian accord," she said, but only under certain conditions similar to those Uribe has stated.

Like Uribe, Medina said that the released guerrillas must not be allowed back into the FARC's ranks to commit more crimes and kidnappings, and must also turn in their weapons.

"When one has a kidnapped loved one, you want them to come home alive," Medina says. "But you also have to think about the country." Letting the guerrillas return to the FARC would promote a "vicious cycle" that "won't serve the country or practically anybody," she adds.

In a speech Monday morning, just before the rescue attempt was launched, Uribe said that a humanitarian accord would only be acceptable if supervised by the United Nations.

He added that the jailed guerrillas must be deported to a friendly country, such as France (which has not accepted such a deal), and that the FARC must release all kidnapped victims - which total in the thousands - not just political prisoners.

As many as 1,000 guerrillas are currently held in Colombian prisons.

Public backs hard line

According to public-opinion polls published Thursday, 73 percent of Colombians agree with Uribe's tough stance towards the FARC following the executions, while 44 percent don't support a humanitarian accord under any circumstances. Twenty-eight percent would only do so under the conditions proposed by Uribe, while only 22 percent said an accord must be struck as soon as possible.

Medina says she has not received any communication, or "proof of life," as it is known here, from Stansell since that fateful day. She wants to know basic things about him - whether he is sick and if he is able to sleep.

"It has totally changed my life," she says. "We need Keith. [Right now the babies] are not going to be with their father."

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