BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia's main leftist rebel group is blaming President Juan Manuel Santos' government for the weekend deaths of four security force members who authorities say were cruelly executed when soldiers happened upon the insurgents holding them.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, claims in a statement published online Tuesday that the four were killed during an army rescue mission aimed at preventing the rebels from releasing the captives unilaterally — something the group has done in the past as a goodwill gesture. All of the hostages had been held captive for at least 12 years.
"We profoundly regret the tragic ending of the demented rescue attempt ordered by the Colombian government," the FARC's ruling seven-man secretariat said in the statement dated Monday and posted on a pro-rebel website.
The insurgents did not refer to the FARC's execution Saturday of the three police officers and one soldier. Colombia's chief coroner said Tuesday that three of the men were shot in the back of the head from a distance of less than 5 feet (1.5 meters) and the fourth was also shot from behind.
A fifth captive, police Sgt. Luis Alberto Erazo, 48, saved himself Saturday by fleeing into the jungle.
The FARC said it was planning to unilaterally release the men and had informed a go-between, former Sen. Piedad Cordoba, of its intent.
In a letter that Cordoba said she received the day before the men were killed, the FARC said it had planned to free six captives but did not name them or say when it planned to release them.
The rebels said the decision was made by their commander, Alfonso Cano, and that his Nov. 4 combat death would not prevent it from being carried out.
They claim in the communique that President Santos and his military high command "made the decision to frustrate this humanitarian gesture and its possible effects."
On the day of the killings, Santos said he expected the FARC to blame his government for the four deaths. Human Rights Watch on Monday called the officers' executions a war crime.
Government officials say they had intelligence in mid-October that rebels holding hostages might be in the area where Saturday's killings occurred. They said the troops who arrived at the rebel camp where the captives were held were on a reconnaissance mission, not attempting a rescue.
It is standing FARC policy to kill captives rather than allow them to be rescued, former rebel hostages say.
The FARC, believed to number about 9,000 fighters, took up arms in 1964, and is believed to fund itself largely through drug trafficking. Most of its fighters are young peasants from regions with few economic opportunities in a country where a small minority controls most wealth and land.
The rebels still hold more than a dozen security-force members.