REPORTING FROM BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- Four military hostages held for as long as 14 years by Colombian rebels were executed by their captors in a southeastern jungle during a rescue attempt by the army, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said Saturday.
He said three of the four hostages –- one soldier and three members of the national police -– were killed with gunshots to the head and the other with a gunshot in the back by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials, FARC.
"We regret profoundly that these victims were killed in cold blood, in a state of absolute defenselessness," Pinson told a hastily called news conference in Bogota, the Colombian capital. "These deeds will not remain unpunished. They will be brought to justice."
He said the bodies were discovered at 10 a.m. Saturday in an unspecified area in Caqueta province shortly after combat ended. One rebel was taken prisoner after the operation.
One of the four victims was army Sgt. Libio Jose Martinez, believed to be Colombia’s longest-held hostage. He was taken prisoner when rebels overran his army base in December 1997.
The other victims were identified as police Col. Edgar Duarte Valero and police Maj. Elkin Hernandez Rivas, both kidnapped Oct. 14, 1998; and police Lt. Alvaro Moreno, kidnapped Dec. 9, 1999.
The FARC, Colombia’s oldest and largest rebel group, has over the last two decades captured dozens of military and civilian hostages to exchange for ransom or to make political points. It has warned the military that any attempted rescue operations would result in the executions of hostages.
On several occasions, the rebels have followed through on those threats, although the most notorious instance, the 2007 killings of 11 state senators they were holding hostage in southwestern Colombia, was an apparent error. The rebels killed them mistakenly thinking army units were approaching.
Martinez was one of 18 soldiers taken prisoner by the FARC when rebels overran the Patascoy military base in southern Putumayo state. Ten soldiers were killed in the attack.
Pinzon said the combat Saturday was short and that after soldiers then entered the FARC camp they encountered the victims in a "concentrated point." He said chains that apparently had bound the hostages were found nearby.
A team of investigators has been sent to the scene to determine the circumstances surrounding the killings.
Pinzon said the military had launched an operation 45 days earlier with intelligence that a FARC unit was in the area and the rebels possibly "had hostages in their power." Pinzon defended the rescue operation, saying the military had the responsibility to "defend the human rights and liberty of all Colombians."
The Colombian government has knocked the FARC on its heels in recent years with armed forces that have benefited from $7.6 billion in mostly military aid from the United States under Plan Colombia. Supreme leader alias Alfonso Cano was killed in a military operation earlier this month. But his successor, who goes by the alias Timochenko, said in a communique after he was named the leader that the rebels' armed campaign would continue.
Photo: Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon, center, discusses the killing of four security force members held by rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia as he speaks at a news conference Saturday in Bogota, Colombia. Credit: William Fernando Martinez/ Associated Press