BOGOTA, Colombia – Top Marxist rebel Ricardo Palmera (search) was extradited to the United States on Friday, becoming the first leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to face U.S. drug and terrorism charges, officials said.
Army commandos with assault rifles and U.S. DEA (search) agents escorted Palmera, wearing handcuffs and a bulletproof jacket, to a U.S. government plane at a military airfield outside Bogota. The plane took off minutes later.
President Alvaro Uribe (search) had given the FARC until Thursday to free 63 hostages or see Palmera, a former FARC negotiator known by the alias Simon Trinidad, stand trial in a U.S. federal court in Washington. The FARC never responded to the ultimatum.
Earlier, a helicopter escorted by three others carried Palmera from his maximum-security prison in Combita, 70 miles north of the capital, to Bogota. He underwent a quick medical checkup before boarding the plane bound for the United States.
The group has said it will release the hostages, which include three Americans and a German, only if 500 jailed rebels are freed. Uribe has all but ruled out such a move.
The extradition came despite warnings from the hostages' families and the Catholic Church that it could scuttle efforts to broker a prisoner swap on humanitarian grounds and force the FARC to retaliate, endangering the hostages' lives.
Colombia's armed forces chief put his troops on high alert over the weekend amid fears of FARC retribution, while the U.S. Embassy in Bogota issued a terror warning.
The FARC and a smaller rebel group called the ELN have been battling to topple the government in Colombia for 40 years in a conflict that claims more than 3,000 lives every year.