Hostages return to U.S. after months of captivity in Ecuador

Saturday, March 3rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MEDFORD, Ore. (AP) _ Four American oil workers held captive in the jungles of Ecuador for nearly five months are reportedly back on U.S. soil.

A private jet carrying three of the men, all employees for Erickson Air-Crane, arrived early Saturday at the airport in Medford, Ore., where they were quickly whisked away in a corporate vehicle, KDRV-TV reported. The company refused to confirm their arrival.

The plane bore the same tail number as the aircraft that delivered another freed American hostage to Centennial Airport near Denver, Colo., late Friday, the station said.

Arnold Alford, 41, Steve Derry, 41, and Jason Weber, 29, all of Gold Hill, Ore., and David Bradley, a Helmerich & Payne employee from Casper, Wyo., were among 10 hostages freed Thursday for a reported $13 million ransom.

``He's lost something like 60 pounds, all the muscle tone in his body, but he seems to be in real good spirits and everything seems to be all right,'' Bradley's stepfather, Marvin Gimmeson, said from Casper, Wyo., on Saturday.

Their captors, believed to be a professional gang of Colombian kidnappers, killed another Helmerich & Payne employee, Ronald Sander, 54, of Sunrise Beach, Mo., last month to pressure the companies to pay.

The five Americans, two French men who later escaped, a Chilean, an Argentine and a New Zealander were abducted at gunpoint Oct. 12 from an oil field in Ecuador's oil-rich northeast Amazon jungle near the border with Colombia.

The surviving hostages were picked up by a military patrol at a prearranged rendezvous point Thursday, and the Americans boarded a private jet in Quito, Ecuador's capital, late Friday.

Foreign Minister Heinz Moeller said Friday he feared the ransom allegedly paid for their release would be used by the kidnappers ``to step up violence, perhaps other kidnappings or other crimes'' along Ecuador's northern border region.

Moeller said the hostage crisis underscores fears that Plan Colombia, the anti-drug program partly funded by the United States, may drive other leftist insurgents across the border into Ecuador. Ecuador is appealing to the United States for $400 million to $500 million over five years to prevent the effects of ``Plan Colombia'' from spilling into the nation.

In a speech in Washington, Moeller said Ecuador's security forces stayed on the sidelines during the hostage ordeal at the request of the U.S., Chilean and Argentine governments.

The commander of Ecuador's air force, Gen. Oswaldo Dominguez, said of the widely reported ransom: ``We celebrate their liberation, but this is a bad sign that could eventually promote a perverse industry of abduction.''

Colombia has the world's highest kidnapping rate, with about 3,700 abductions ever year, most by leftist guerrillas and common criminals.

Tiny, impoverished Ecuador has suffered severe political instability in recent years, including two military-supported coups. It is seen as having little ability to control violence spilling over the border.

The chief of Ecuador's anti-kidnapping police unit, Bolivar Cardenas, said interviews with the freed hostages provided information that could help thwart future abduction attempts.

German Scholz, a Chilean consultant for European energy giant Repsol-YPF, told Channel 10 television shortly after being freed that the kidnappers told them Sander had been liberated as part of a ransom deal.

``On Jan. 24, the day that we were separated from him, we shook hands and said goodbye,'' Scholz recalled. ``The promise was that they were freeing Ron because that was the deal they had agreed to with the oil companies.''

The companies have not publicly confirmed the ransom payment.