3 held in Colombia work for Harford Co.-based firm

4th Northrop employee was killed by guerrillas after Feb. 13 plane crash

February 27, 2003|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Three Americans kidnapped after a plane crash in Colombia two weeks ago, and a fourth who was shot and killed during the incident, worked for a Harford County-based division of Northrop Grumman Corp. that specializes in making surveillance planes for the U.S. government, company officials disclosed yesterday.

The four employees were flying with a Colombian intelligence officer in a single-engine Cessna that crash-landed Feb. 13 near Florencia, Colombia. The Colombian and one of the Americans were shot by guerrillas shortly after the crash, and the others are being held by the rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Unit based in Belcamp

Yesterday, Northrop Grumman released a statement confirming that the four Americans worked for the company's California Microwave Systems unit, based in Belcamp.

The U.S. Southern Command, which is responsible for U.S. military operations in South America, said the Maryland company was operating the aircraft under contract with the Department of Defense to support a joint operation with the Colombian government.

Neither the company nor the Pentagon would characterize the plane's mission.

California Microwave specializes in outfitting aircraft with sensors, radar dishes and other electronics for aerial surveillance.

In the past three years it has won large contracts to make spy planes for the U.S. Army and to outfit jets for the U.S. Coast Guard for use in surveillance, search-and-rescue operations and drug interdiction.

Northrop Grumman officials gave no reason for the timing of yesterday's statement, which countered recent claims from the Colombian rebels that their captives work for the CIA.

"Northrop Grumman is deeply saddened by the loss of one of its employees and the fact that three other employees are still missing," the company said in its statement. "The thoughts of the entire corporation are with them and their families during this difficult time."

Northrop Grumman and the Southern Command declined to identify the Americans, noting privacy concerns. But at a Justice Department news briefing Monday, John Walters, the White House director of drug policy, identified the dead American as Thomas Janis, a former member of the military who was buried this week at Arlington National Cemetery.

The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that Janis, 56, lived in Montgomery, Ala., and that his wife had confirmed he was killed during the incident in Colombia. An obituary in the Montgomery Advertiser identified Janis as the recipient of numerous military honors, including the Bronze Star. He was also a certified pilot.

The Southern Command said yesterday that fewer than 50 U.S. military personnel have been dispatched to Colombia to help search for the hostages, offering primarily technical assistance.

Those troops are in addition to U.S. military personnel who routinely operate in Colombia to train police and military forces in counter-drug and counter-terrorism efforts, a force that is limited to 400 personnel under federal law.

Colombian forces reportedly have been waging a military-style search-and-rescue campaign for the hostages. The FARC rebels have said the Americans' lives will be in danger if the mission is not called off. On a FARC-controlled Web site, the group referred to the Americans as "gringo CIA agents" sent to spy on the guerrillas.

Prisoner swap sought

The rebels, who oppose the Colombian government, said Monday that they consider the Americans prisoners of war who will be freed only as part of a broad prisoner exchange that includes the release of rebel insurgents being held in Colombian prisons.

U.S. officials have said they have not authorized or requested that any group negotiate for the hostages' release.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Bogota declined to comment about the kidnapping or the U.S. military's involvement in a possible rescue.

California Microwave Systems was bought by Northrop Grumman in 1999 and is part of the company's Electronic Systems sector based in Linthicum. Its headquarters are in a block-long brick building in an industrial complex in Belcamp, in eastern Harford County.

The division operates an aircraft maintenance and upgrade facility in Hagerstown. In recent years, the unit had as many as 400 employees at three facilities in Maryland and one in California.

Sun staff writer Ted Shelsby contributed to this article.

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