Rescuers ‘very close’ to kids missing for weeks in Colombian Amazon

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The discovery of a rudimentary shelter, some half-eaten fruit and a fresh footprint led the Colombian military to announce Tuesday it was getting “very close” to the four Indigenous children roaming the Amazon since a plane they were on crashed a month ago.

The children — aged 13, nine, four and one — have been lost in the jungle since the light aircraft crash in Colombia’s southeast on May 1 claimed the lives of the three adults on board: their mother Magdalena Mucutui Valencia, the pilot, and an Indigenous leader.

The bodies of the adults were found with the plane wreck, but a massive search by 160 soldiers and 70 Indigenous people with intimate knowledge of the jungle has been under way ever since for the youngsters — Lesly (13), Soleiny (9), Tien Noriel (4) and baby Cristin.

On Sunday, rescuers found the latest traces, which “confirm two things: the first that they are alive, and the second that we are very close,” team leader General Pedro Sanchez told Blu Radio.

The search area has been narrowed to about 20 square kilometers (7.7 square miles), said Sanchez, from an initial 320 square kilometers — about double the size of Washington, DC.

Judging by its size, the footprint found may belong to Lesly, whom relatives have said knows the jungle well.

Unlike a sandal print found previously, the new trail indicates at least one of the children is now barefoot.

Last week, the team had found a pair of shoes and a diaper in the dense jungle.

Near the fresh print, the team on Sunday also found “a kind of resting place” or shelter. “The children probably used it for a night or two,” said Sanchez.

“At some point we crossed paths (with the children),” he added.

Search team member Col. Fausto Avellaneda said the latest finds “gives us new motivation and excitement.”

“This is a fresh footprint found approximately two kilometers from the last footprint we had found, and it gives us a sign that the children are still alive,” he said in a video distributed by the military.

On the morning of May 1, a Cessna 206 airplane left a jungle area known as Araracuara heading for the town of San Jose del Guaviare in the Colombian Amazon.

Minutes after starting the 350-kilometer (217-mile) journey, the pilot reported problems with the engine and the plane disappeared from radars.

Between May 15 and 16, soldiers found the bodies of the three adults and the debris of the plane stuck vertically in the thick vegetation, its nose destroyed.

The air force has since dumped 10,000 flyers into the forest with instructions in Spanish and the children’s own Indigenous language, telling them to stay put.

The leaflets also included survival tips, and the military has dropped food parcels and bottled water for the children who are of the Huitoto community, known for living in harmony with the jungle.

Huitoto children learn hunting, fishing and gathering and the kids’ grandfather, Fidencio Valencia, has told AFP the children are well acquainted with the jungle.

Rescuers have been broadcasting a message recorded by the children’s grandmother, urging them not to move so the soldiers can find them.

Air force helicopters and satellite images are being used in the search in an area home to jaguars, pumas, snakes and other predators, as well as armed groups that smuggle drugs and terrorize local populations.

According to Sanchez, the minors and their mother had boarded the plane to escape guerrilla activity near their community.

But he said it was “unlikely” the kids had fallen into the hands of any armed group. “We have not found any adult prints.”

Sanchez said the search was complicated by “a totally jungle terrain where you can see nothing 20 meters ahead, trees 40-50 meters (tall)… where the rays of the Sun enter with great difficulty.”

It rained about 16 hours per day, erasing any tracks and muffling the sound of movement, he added.

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