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U.S. adds to military presence in Colombia

Leftist rebels admit holding three Americans

The bodies of two passengers were found shot near the wreckage of their crashed plane.
The bodies of two passengers were found shot near the wreckage of their crashed plane.

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CRAWFORD, Texas (CNN) -- A senior Bush administration official told CNN on Saturday that additional U.S. military personnel have been dispatched to Colombia, where leftist rebels have acknowledged holding three Americans captive.

The official declined to provide a details of how many U.S. military forces were in the South American nation but said they were part of "contingency planning."

The official said any discussions of a possible rescue operation were premature and that U.S. authorities were focused on providing intelligence and other support to Colombian authorities, who were taking the lead.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters here that, "I'm not going to describe any additional deployments, but suffice it to say that we work closely with Colombia. We have before. We will continue to do so."

Colombia's largest rebel group has said the lives of the three U.S. citizens are at risk if the government does not halt military operations in rebel-held territory.

In a communiqué posted Saturday on its Web site, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- known by its Spanish acronym, FARC -- acknowledged for the first time that it had captured three Americans who survived a plane crash February 13 in rebel-held territory.

The rebels also claimed responsibility for shooting down the plane, which they said had been on a mission to spy on them. Colombian and U.S. military forces have blamed the crash on mechanical problems.

"We can only guarantee the life and physical integrity of the three official gringos in our power if the Colombian military immediately suspends military operations and overflights in the area," said the communiqué, which was datelined "The mountains of Colombia, February 21."

The State Department refused to comment on the FARC announcement and repeated previous statements holding the FARC "responsible for the safety, health and well-being" of the Americans.

The United States "demands their safe release," a State Department official said.

The State Department official said the United States has "not authorized any group to negotiate" with FARC for the hostages' release.

Since the crash, more than 2,000 Colombian soldiers have been scouring the rugged terrain in the southern part of the country in search of the Americans, whom the communiqué identified as CIA agents.

U.S. planes, including AWACS surveillance craft, have been flying overhead to help direct the search for the men, who were among five people -- four from the United States and one Colombian -- aboard the Cessna 208, which was contracted by the U.S. Defense Department. The men were private citizens under contract with the DOD, U.S. officials have said.

The Colombian army said rescuers reached the site within half an hour of the crash and found the executed bodies of the other two men -- a Colombian and an American -- near the wreckage of the incinerated plane.

The group had been on an intelligence mission en route from the capital to Florencia, in Colombia's Caqueta Department, a region known to harbor FARC guerrillas, the Colombian armed forces said.

-- CNN senior White House correspondent John King and journalist Asdrubal Garcia contributed to this report.


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