By Lisa Myers Senior investigative correspondent
NBC News Investigative Unit
updated 11/21/2006 11:11:48 PM ET 2006-11-22T04:11:48

A federal judge declared a mistrial Tuesday in the government's case against Colombian rebel leader Ricardo Palmera who is accused of conspiring to keep three American military contractors hostage in the Colombian jungle after their spyplane crashed more than three years ago.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan ended the trial and dismissed the jury after receiving three notes in three days from jurors saying they could not reach agreement on any of the charges against Palmera.

Palmera, a leader in the revolutionary group known as the FARC, and who uses the name Simon Trinidad, was on trial charged with four counts of hostage taking. He also faces drug charges in the United States and will remain in custody, officials said.

Government prosecutors said they plan to retry Palmera, who was accused of plotting to keep the Americans hostage in a failed effort to exchange them for the release of hundreds of FARC prisoners held by the Colombian government. Prosecutors said in court that there are "grave security concerns" about some of the 20 witnesses, some former members of FARC, that testified against Palmera in the 19-day trial.

Last month, NBC News reported exclusive new details of the last moments of the ill-fated flight of the American contractors. Audio tapes documented the final communications from the Americans with ground controllers just before their plane, laden with sophisticated electronic equipment on a mission to find cocaine labs in the jungle, crashed after apparent engine failure. Intercepted communications from the FARC recorded the rebel's celebration of the crash.

During the trial, Palmera testified that he had never seen the three Americans he is accused of helping hold hostage -- Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell -- and described the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by the Spanish-language acronym FARC, as noble and peaceful. Palmera is a Harvard-educated former banker from a wealthy family.

He said he took up arms to fight social injustice. FARC, along with a smaller leftist rebel group, has battled to topple the Colombian government for 42 years in a conflict that has claimed more than 3,000 lives a year.

After the American spyplane crash-landed in the rebel held jungle of southern Colombia, the FARC executed the American pilot and a Colombian and took the three other Americans hostage. A Colombian journalist was granted an interview to show they were alive.

Three years later, these men are still being held somewhere in the Colombian jungle. The new trial is scheduled to begin next year.

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