What is known about the four missing children in Colombia's Amazon

·3-min read
A photograph released by Colombia's armed forces on May 17 of a sniffer dog taking part in the rescue operation
A photograph released by Colombia's armed forces on May 17 of a sniffer dog taking part in the rescue operation

A hundred soldiers with sniffer dogs and local Indigenous people are searching through the Colombian Amazon in a desperate bid to find four children missing since an airplane crash almost three weeks ago.

Three adults, including the pilot and the children's mother died in the crash but rescuers believe an 11-month-old baby and its siblings aged four, nine and 13 survived and are now wandering through the dense forest.

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President Gustavo Petro lifted and then crushed the nation's hopes when he announced on Wednesday that all four had been found alive and well, only to retract that a day later.

Signs of life have been found, including a baby's bottle, a footprint and an improvised shelter, but the mystery of the missing children grows by the hour.

This is what is known about the disappearance of the four children and the rescue efforts.

- The flight

On the morning of May 1, a Cessna 206 airplane run by Avianline Charters left a jungle area known as Araracuara heading for San Jose del Guaviare, one of the main towns in the Colombian Amazon.

On board were a leader of the Indigenous Witoto community and an Indigenous woman called Magdalena Mucutui Valencia, along with her four children.

Minutes after beginning the 350-kilometer journey, the pilot reported problems with the engine and the plane disappeared from radars.

- Signs of life

Between May 15 and 16, soldiers found the bodies of the pilot and the two adults in the southern Caqueta department. The airplane was stuck vertically in the thick vegetation, with its nose destroyed.

There was no sign of the children.

A sniffer dog located a baby's bottle some distance away. Rescuers found shoes, clothes and a piece of fruit that had been recently bitten into.

On May 17, soldiers came across a makeshift shelter, constructed out of sticks and branches. Another dog found scissors and hair ties.

An air force helicopter roamed over the jungle blasting out a message through loudspeakers from the children's grandmother in the Witoto language.

According to their grandfather Fidencio Valencia, the children "are used to the jungle" and could be hiding out of fear.

However, Valencia questioned on Friday "why would the children discard things" that could be useful to their survival.

"The scissors are a weapon or could be used to cut a leaf," Valencia told Blu Radio.

- False rescue report

The mystery deepened on Thursday when Petro deleted his tweet from the day before announcing the children's rescue.

The government Family Welfare Institute explained that on Wednesday it had received "information from the territory confirming contact with the four children" and that the report indicated that "they had been found alive and are also in good health."

However, the agency acknowledged that the military had not been able to "establish official contact" due to bad weather and difficult terrain, and were continuing search and rescue operations.

The latest report from authorities was the discovery of a fresh footprint in the mud, believed to belong to one of the children.

- Many hazards

On Friday, the military said it was deploying an extra 50 soldiers to boost the search and rescue effort.

Indigenous people used to moving through the Amazon, where wild animals and thunderstorms are constant dangers, have joined the search.

"There are no villages in this area, even the Indigenous people don't know it," said Valencia.

Another threat is the armed groups that use the region's jungle and rivers to move around, smuggling drugs and terrorizing local populations.