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Colombia Plane Hijacked; 46 Missing

April 13, 1999

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Suspected leftist rebels hijacked a Colombian domestic flight and hustled away its 46 passengers and crew Monday, after a forced landing on a remote airstrip.

Pilots who flew over the landing strip in Simiti said they saw people dressed in green escorting captives from Avianca’s Fokker-50 turboprop into wooden boats on the adjacent Magdalena River.

Police who later landed at the strip found the plane empty with no signs of a violent struggle, said Ernesto Huertas, director of the civil aviation authority. There was no immediate claim of responsibility and the plane was not carrying any senior government officials.

It appeared no foreigners were aboard the plane, whose passengers included the president of state-owned natural gas company Ecogas, Abner Duarte, and a congressman, Juan Corso. A 3-year-old child was among those on the passenger list.

``My father suffered a heart attack three months ago and he needs drugs. He’s a delicate person,″ German Florez told RCN radio, asking for mercy for 72-year-old Luis Florez, who was abducted along with his wife.

Colombians who no longer travel by road, fearing now commonplace guerrilla highway kidnappings, will now reconsider domestic air travel, commented Rep. Antonio Navarro Wolff.

Simiti is 80 miles northwest of Bucaramanga, the provincial capital, which the plane left at 10:32 a.m. en route to Bogota. The flight normally takes 65 minutes.

Veined by tributaries to the Magdalena River that climb into thickly forested Andean highlands, the region has traditionally been used by rebels to hide victims of ransom kidnappings. In recent months, it has also seen fierce combat between guerrillas and their paramilitary foes.

The air force commander, Gen. Fabio Velasco, said people in uniform were seen surrounding the plane by a search-and-rescue helicopter pilot. It was presumed they were leftist rebels.

The pilot of a small commercial plane who flew over the plane said it had landed on an airstrip that had in the past been dynamited by authorities, likely because it was used by illegal drug flights.

The last communication with Flight 9463 occurred two minutes after takeoff from Palonegro airport in Bucaramanga, officials said. The plane did not report any problems and officials said weather conditions were excellent.

If leftist guerrillas were responsible, they might try to use the abducted passengers as bargaining chips in peace negotiations with the government.

Both the National Liberation Army and the country’s largest rebel band, The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, have peace talks that has made little progress, with guerrilla attacks on rural police posts and military patrols a nearly daily occurrence.

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