U.S. hostage found dead in Amazon

QUITO, Ecuador, Reuters

An American who was one of 10 foreign oil workers kidnapped and held for ransom in Ecuador’s Amazon jungle region last October was found shot to death on Wednesday, authorities said on Thursday.

Officials said the body of a man found in jungle brush near Lago Agrio, some 10 miles (15 km) south of the Andean nation’s border with Colombia, was that of Ronald Clay Sander, 54, an employee for 24 years of Helmerich & Payne, a Tulsa, Oklahoma based drilling company.

Police said Sander had been shot. They said his body was draped in a white blanket reading, “I’m a gringo. For nonpayment of the kidnapping of company HP Pompeya DG.”

Helmerich & Payne Vice President Steve Mackey said the company retained security experts when the kidnapping first occurred, and had been working closely with the Ecuadorean and U.S. governments ever since.

“We didn’t see this coming, it was a complete shock,” Mackey, who has been coordinating the crisis management, told Reuters.

“It’s a tragic loss,” he said.

The company’s Chief Executive Hans Helmerich said in a statement, “We are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of Ron Sander and extend our deepest sympathy and prayers to his family and friends.”

The company said that Sander, a Missouri native, and another of its employees had been among the eight workers still being held hostage after last October’s kidnapping. It said it had been negotiating for their release, along with certain other companies, for nearly four months.

Five U.S. citizens were among the hostages, along with an Argentine, a New Zealander and a Chilean. Two Frenchmen escaped a few days after they were kidnapped.

Interior Minister Juan Manrique said in a telephone interview that “a clandestine group holding the hostages is negotiating directly with the oil companies. They don’t consent to pay the amount asked for the captives.”

An oil industry source said the kidnappers had sought a total ransom of US$80 million for the hostages.

“This is a very serious and very delicate situation,” Manrique said. “The government deplores this killing.” The U.S. Embassy in Quito said in a statement that it “demands the immediate and unconditional freedom of those who still remain kidnapped.” The embassy’s official policy is not to negotiate with kidnappers.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, “The United States will continue to work closely with the government of Ecuador to gain the release of remaining hostages and bring to justice the perpetrators of this horrible crime.”

The United States assumed that the other hostages remained alive, he added.

Ecuador, a nation of 12.4 million people, initially accused Colombia’s biggest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), of the kidnapping, but FARC leaders immediately denied involvement.

The government has retracted the accusation and attributed the act to common criminals, probably from Ecuador and Colombia.

“We believe them to be a criminal element,” Mackey said, but declined to comment further.

In 1999, 12 foreigners working for a Canadian oil firm in Ecuador’s Amazon region were kidnapped by an unidentified group and released unharmed three months later. No one claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.

Violence is not new to Ecuador’s Sucumbios province, just across the border from Colombia’s coca-growing Putumayo province, the scene of frequent FARC and paramilitary combat.

Just three weeks ago, the Ecuadorean military found a FARC campsite on the Ecuadorean side of the border where uniforms were being made. The military also reported a shootout between FARC and Colombian paramilitary members outside a bar near Lago Agrio that killed two.

In December, Ecuador’s only oil pipeline suffered two bomb attacks in Sucumbios, the second killing five people traveling on a bus through the area.