updated 3/11/2007 12:18:59 AM ET 2007-03-11T05:18:59

On the eve of a visit by President Bush , the U.S. Embassy confirmed Saturday that American and Colombian soldiers had conducted a joint operation in the southern stronghold of leftist rebels who are holding three U.S. military contractors.

The rare confirmation followed a report by Colombia’s largest newspaper, citing unidentified sources, that two local residents had been detained in the late January operation and interrogated about the contractors’ whereabouts.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Marshall Louis said only that “U.S. personnel accompanied Colombian forces in the south and that’s all I can say about it.”

The U.S. military’s rules of engagement bar American soldiers from combat operations in this conflict-scarred nation but permit them to accompany host nation troops in areas where guerrillas operate and to defend themselves if attacked.

Current and former U.S. officials closely involved in the situation have told The Associated Press that Washington has failed to engage in routine negotiations or take other diplomatic steps to seek the hostages’ release, making the Bush administration appear increasingly focused on a military rescue.

The Bush administration has denied neglecting to pursue all avenues to safely free the three men.

Marc Gonsalves, Tom Howes and Keith Stansell were captured by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in February 2003 when their surveillance plane went down in a rebel stronghold in the country’s south.

Their fate is expected to be on the agenda when Bush meets with President Alvaro Uribe on Sunday in Colombia, which receives $700 million a year from the U.S. in mostly military aid.

Uribe told the AP in an interview Thursday that while he is open to negotiating a deal to secure the hostages’ release, it “is also the duty of our government to seek a rescue.”

The newspaper El Tiempo reported Saturday that the U.S. and Colombian soldiers arrived in the southern town of Cartagena del Chaira, a FARC stronghold, by helicopter on Jan. 28 about 30 minutes after rebels shot and wounded a woman.

The rebels fled but the U.S. and Colombian troops took two people with them for questioning who said when they returned two days later that they had been interrogated about the U.S. hostages, according to El Tiempo.

By law, the United States can have no more than 800 military personnel in Colombia at any time. Their mission is mostly training, logistics and intelligence support for Colombian operations against guerrillas and drug traffickers.

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