December 21, 2003
By VANESSA ARRINGTON Associated Press Writer
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) - Reviving a case that strained relations with the United States, Colombia's attorney general has charged the crew of a military helicopter with involuntary manslaughter for killing 17 civilians with a bomb during a 1998 clash with rebels.
The crew members - Capt. Cesar Romero, 1st Lt. Johan Jimenez and Hector Mario Hernandez, a technician - will be tried in civilian court for the bombing near the northeastern village of Santo Domingo, the attorney general's office said.
In a statement released late Friday, the attorney general's office said it appeared the helicopter crew did not realize there were civilians in the area when they dropped the bomb during a battle with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The bomb also wounded 25 people.
``Evidence shows that (they) did not intend to inflict harm upon the civilian population,'' the statement said. ``Rather, it shows a lack of foresight in using this type of war equipment.''
Air force officials could not be reached for comment Saturday.
Delays in prosecuting the case prompted the United States earlier this year to suspend military aid to the air force unit involved in the attack. In August, Gen. Hector Velasco retired as commander of the air force amid U.S. complaints he stalled probes into the bombing.
For nearly five years, the air force denied responsibility for the incident. Velasco said the deaths were caused by a rebel truck bomb, even though a forensic analysis by the FBI concluded that the shrapnel appeared to have come from a bomb dropped from the air.
The helicopter crew members would not face prison if convicted but likely would have to pay reparations to victims' families, a spokesman for the attorney general said.
``I'm glad that the truth is getting out, and that at least something resembling an end to impunity in this case has begun,'' said Adam Isacson, of the Center for International Policy in Washington. ``It's disappointing, though, that it took five years and so much U.S. pressure.''
Three U.S. civilians were accused of pinpointing the targets during the battle, but the men left Colombia before investigators could serve subpoenas and get their testimony.
They worked for AirScan International Inc. of Rockledge, Fla., which provided aircraft services to Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum and Colombia's state oil company, Ecopetrol. The companies produce oil in Arauca state, where Santo Domingo is located.
Colombia's civil war, now in its 39th year, claims an estimated 3,500 lives every year.