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12 accused of aiding Colombia rebel group

Associated Press / September 29, 2009

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NEW YORK - A dozen members of a Colombian organization have been charged with conspiring to aid a foreign terrorist group and taking a US citizen hostage last year in Panama, authorities said yesterday.

Prosecutors said two of the defendants are in custody. The rest are fugitives.

An indictment unsealed in US District Court in Manhattan accused six of the defendants of aiding Colombia’s rebel army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which the US government considers a terrorist organization.

A separate indictment, returned in May, charged nine of the 12 with kidnapping a US citizen in April 2008 in the Costa del Este neighborhood of Panama City. The victim, who was not identified in court papers, was released in February after his family paid ransom.

According to the indictment, one defendant told a member of the kidnapping victim’s family in Miami during a July 2, 2008, telephone call that the family would never see him again unless the full ransom was paid. The indictment did not specify the ransom amount.

Three defendants are accused of guarding the victim while he was held, while others are accused of negotiating the ransom and detaining the victim.

The victim’s family moved money between September 2008 and last December from Miami to Panama City, where it was eventually withdrawn from a bank, the indictment said.

The kidnapping victim has since returned to the United States, the indictment said.

US Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement that the defendants belonged to the 57th Front, one of the FARC’s most violent elements.

“This group of guerrillas kidnapped a United States citizen, procured weapons and explosives, and trafficked cocaine to fuel the FARC’s terrorist activities,’’ he said. “The charges unsealed today mark another important step in our efforts to combat international narco-terrorism.’’

Michele M. Leonhart, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s acting administrator, said the agency and its partners in Panama and Colombia will pursue the 57th Front until its members have surrendered or been captured.

Earlier this month, Colombia sent a captured FARC rebel who had unwittingly helped officials rescue 15 hostages - including three American military contractors - to Florida to face charges of terrorism in a US federal court.

Prosecutors said Nancy Conde Rubio, 37, led a finance and supply operation for the rebel group. She is the former girlfriend of rebel Gerardo Aguilar, who helped keep watch over the hostages. Aguilar was extradited to the United States in July.

Prosecutors say Conde negotiated shipments of everything from assault rifles to condoms for distribution to about a third of the FARC’s estimated 9,000 fighters, including the 1st Front, which held the hostages. Colombian security agents managed to start monitoring her phone calls in 2003, a few weeks after the Americans’ surveillance plane crashed in the Colombian jungle.