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Ex-Colombian rebel pleads guilty to hostage taking

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A former commander in the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia pleaded guilty Tuesday to taking three American citizens hostage after their single-engine plane crash-landed in the Colombia jungle in 2003.

Alexander Beltran Herrera's plea in federal court came two years after being extradited to the United States to stand trial. He pleaded guilty to three counts of hostage taking and aiding and abetting.

Herrera joined the FARC in 1994, rose to company commander and was in charge of 50 guerrillas before deserting in 2009, according to court papers filed in the case.

Seventeen others charged in the case are still at large.

In interviews with the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement officers, Herrera said he received explosives training, becoming an expert in manufacturing an explosive that FARC calls "R1."

For the past half century, the FARC has sought to overthrow the Colombian government. It has been on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations since 1997. It has characterized U.S. citizens as "military targets" and committed violent acts against Americans in Colombia, including murders.

Colombian military forces rescued the three Americans in 2008 after they spent more than five years in captivity. Two others aboard the plane that crash-landed were murdered at the crash site.

For part of their captivity, Herrera was responsible for moving the American hostages and keeping them imprisoned. FARC jailers and guards used choke harnesses, chains, padlocks and wires to bind the hostages' necks and wrists. Herrera said that when he first met the hostages, they had ropes around their neck, court papers reported.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth is scheduled to sentence Herrera July 25. The law allows a sentence up to life in prison, but the U.S. agreed as a condition of extradition not to seek a sentence exceeding 60 years.

Defense contractors Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes were conducting counter-drug aerial surveillance in southern Colombia on Feb. 13, 2003 when their plane made an emergency landing on a mountainside and they were taken captive.

The two men who were murdered at the crash site were Thomas Janis, an American, and Sgt. Luis Alcides Cruz, a Colombian.

The FARC leadership used Stansell, Gonsalves and Howes to try to increase pressure on Colombia's government to agree to rebel demands.

In a 2003 video distributed to U.S. media outlets, the FARC said the three American prisoners would be released when all FARC guerrillas held in Colombian jails were released.

In 2009, the Americans were awarded the Defense of Freedom Medal, the civilian equivalent of the Purple Heart. All the Americans on the plane were working for California Microwave Systems as pilots or systems analysts.

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