U.S. vet reportedly ignored warnings before capture by Colombian rebels

July 23, 2013

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — A former member of the U.S. armed forces kidnapped in Colombia ignored warnings from police and hotel staff not to attempt a trek through jungle controlled by Marxist rebels.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said in a statement on its website on July 19 that it had captured a U.S. soldier named Kevin Scott Sutay on June 20 in Guaviare province, a remote jungle and cattle-ranching area in southern Colombia. The U.S. Embassy in Bogotá said in an emailed statement it’s working closely with Colombian authorities on the case. Sutay is a U.S. citizen with no current connection to the U.S. military, the embassy said.

President Juan Manuel Santos on Tuesday rejected the involvement of a leftist mediator in the handover of Sutay, potentially complicating his release.

Santos said he would only allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to facilitate the release of the U.S. man, which would require government safe conduct guarantees.

Santos accused the FARC, Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, of seeking to turn the hostage’s release into a “media show.”

“They want the world to thank them for the humanitarian gesture,” he said.

A week before being abducted, Sutay said in an interview he planned to walk through more than 300 miles (483 kilometers) of rain forest to the town of Inirida, on the border with Venezuela. Staff at Hotel Las Palmas in the provincial capital of San José del Guaviare, where Sutay was staying before he was abducted, were so concerned for their guest’s safety that they called the police, hotel administrator Adriana Sánchez said.

“I explained to him that it was dangerous, that it was an area without much military presence,” Sánchez said in a telephone interview. “He kept insisting. So we called police and advised them that he wanted to make this trip, and that they should take action.”

National Police officers came to the hotel and tried “many times” to dissuade Sutay from making the trip, Sánchez said.

Sutay, a lanky man in his 20s with a military-style crew cut, said he’d been discharged recently from the U.S. military, where he served in a combat unit in Afghanistan. Hotel workers advised him not to talk about his experiences in Afghanistan, Sánchez added.

“We told him it was dangerous to talk about these things in a place where anyone could be listening,” she said.

Sutay is the first U.S. citizen to be held hostage by the FARC since Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves, employees of Northrop Grumman, were rescued by the Colombian army in 2008 in Guaviare province. They had been in captivity more than five years.

Michael McKinley, U.S. ambassador to Colombia, said the FARC should release Sutay as soon as possible.

“He has nothing to do with any military mission inside Colombia,” McKinley said in comments Sunday to the media in Bogotá. “He is a private citizen who has nothing to do with the conflict in Colombia.”

Sutay said he was from Raleigh, North Carolina, and had mainly traveled by land through Mexico and Central America to reach Colombia. Sutay said in a June 14 interview that he planned to dodge FARC patrols by keeping off trails and pioneering across the jungle using survival skills he learned in the Army.

Two days before leaving San José del Guaviare, he bought a machete for his trip and said he planned to use a compass to navigate through the jungle.

The FARC, in its statement, said it will release Sutay to the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Marxist rebel group, which has been fighting since 1964, is in peace talks with government negotiators in Cuba.

“Despite our right to hold the soldier Kevin Scott as a prisoner of war, we have taken the decision to free him as a gesture that is framed by the atmosphere of the talks in Havana with the Colombian government in search of an agreement to end the social and armed conflict in our country,” FARC said.

President Santos, who as defense minister helped turn the tide in a five-decade war against cocaine-funded rebel groups, will lead a security meeting today in the northern department of Arauca after a guerrilla ambush left 17 military personnel dead, El Colombiano reported. The group’s identity isn’t known, the newspaper said on its website.

AFP contributed to this report.

© 2013, Bloomberg News

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