Colombian President Gustavo Petro on Thursday retracted his claim that four Indigenous children missing for more than two weeks after an airplane crash in the Amazon had been found alive.
Writing on Twitter, Petro said he had deleted his tweet from Wednesday night in which he had announced their rescue.
“I am sorry for what happened. The military forces and Indigenous communities will continue in their tireless search to give the country the news it is waiting for,” he added.
On Wednesday Petro had declared “joy for the country,” saying the children, including an 11-month-old baby, had been found alive in the dense Colombian Amazon. Petro said on Twitter the children were found after “arduous search efforts” by the military.
The announcement had been met with uncertainty as he gave no details about where or how the children had been rescued, nor how they had survived alone in the jungle.
More than 100 soldiers had been deployed with sniffer dogs to search for the children, who were traveling in an airplane that crashed on May 1, leaving three adults including the pilot and the children’s mother dead.
Rescuers had said earlier they believed the children — who in addition to the 11-month-old are 13, 9 and 4 years old — were wandering through the jungle in the southern Caqueta department since the crash.
Avianline Charters, owner of the crashed aircraft, said one of its pilots in the search area was told the children had been found and that they “were being transported by boat downriver and that they were all alive.”
However, the company also said that “there has been no official confirmation.”
The armed forces had earlier said their search efforts intensified after rescuers came across a “shelter built in an improvised way with sticks and branches,” leading them to believe there were survivors.
In photographs released by the military, scissors, shoes, and hair ties could be seen among branches on the jungle floor.
A baby’s drinking bottle and half-eaten pieces of fruit had been spotted before the shelter’s discovery.
On Monday and Tuesday, soldiers found the bodies of the pilot and two adults who had been flying from a jungle location to San Jose del Guaviare, one of the main cities in Colombia’s Amazon rainforest.
One of the dead passengers, Ranoque Mucutuy, was the mother of the four children.
Giant trees that can grow up to 40 meters tall and heavy rainfall made the “Operation Hope” search difficult.
Three helicopters were used to help, one of which blasted out a recorded message from the children’s grandmother in their native Huitoto language telling them to stop moving through the jungle.
Authorities have not indicated what caused the plane crash. The pilot had reported problems with the engine just minutes before the airplane disappeared from radars, Colombia’s disaster response agency said.
It is a region with few roads and is also difficult to access by river, so airplane transport is common.
The children are from the Indigenous Huitoto community, also spelled Witoto, who are known for living in harmony with the remote jungle. The community develops skills in hunting, fishing and gathering.
Exploitation, disease and assimilation have reduced the population sharply over many decades.
Petro, who announced the rescue, is Colombia’s first leftist president. He came to power last August but has so far been unable to usher in the fundamental reforms in labor law, health care, pensions and the judiciary that he promised during his campaign.