Colombia Plane Apparently Hijacked
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ A Colombian passenger plane was apparently hijacked on a domestic flight Monday and forced to land on a remote airstrip. Its passengers and crew were believed hustled away by leftist rebels.
Pilots who flew over the landing strip in Simiti said they saw people dressed in green escorting the 46 passengers and crew of the 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, Aldair Duarte, and a congressman, Juan Corso. A 3-year-old child was among those on the passenger list.
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, who have a strong presence in the area.
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.