Colombian rebels kidnap Briton

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A SOLDIER working at the British embassy in Colombia has been kidnapped by Marxist guerrillas after being picked up by chance at a road- block.

Negotiations to free Staff Sergeant Timothy Cowley, 32, were so sensitive that the Foreign Office kept the news of his kidnapping secret for a fortnight until it leaked out yesterday.

It is not known whether a ransom is being demanded for Sgt Cowley, clerk to the defence attache at the embassy in Bogota, by the guerrillas, who have fought successive Colombian governments for more than 30 years.

A spokesman for the Foreign Office said yesterday: "This is a very common occurrence in Colombia. He was unfortunate and we are doing all we can to secure his return. Our position with ransoms is well known, we do not pay them."

Ray Whitney, Conservative MP for Wycombe and chairman of the British- Latin American Parliamentary Group, said: "The policy of not having deals for kidnapped diplomats must be the right one. If not there would be a spate of them. The Colombian authorities are the people who must deal with the kidnappers.''

Sgt Cowley was driving through the south-west of Colombia when he came across a road-block set up either by the National Liberation Army (ELN) or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). He was seized when they realised he was from the British embassy.

FARC and ELN have about 7,000 fighters between them and, together with the cocaine cartels, have turned Colombia into the kidnap capital of the world. More than 1,000 people are seized each year.

Although Sgt Cowley's kidnapping does not appear to have been planned by the guerrillas, negotiations to free him will not be helped by the fact that British instructors have been training Colombian special forces in anti-drugs operations for some time.

It is thought that the SAS has been involved.The Ministry of Defence is currently trying to get the courts to ban a new book by Andy McNab that is believed to reveal details of SAS operations in Colombia.

Despite the fact that the training programme has not been directed specifically at the guerrillas, the latter have become involved with the gangsters running Colombia's infamous drugs cartels. At one stage FARC guerrillas were guarding cocaine processing laboratories in return for cash.

When guerrillas took over the Palace of Justice in Bogota in 1985 in an attack in which a dozen Supreme Court justices and 100 others died, the involvement of the cartels was obvious. The judges were discussing whether or not to extradite some of the drug barons to America.

It is not known whether Sgt Cowley, who works for the military attache, Colonel M.A. Ponikowski of the Royal Logistic Corps, was involved with the training programme.

The danger that Sgt Cowley is in was brutally illustrated two weeks ago when Trevor Catton, 22, a British student, was executed after being held for two months by kidnappers demanding a pounds 330,000 ransom .

Three years ago Peter Kessler, 65, a British businessman, was shot dead by his FARC kidnappers when an army patrol approached the camp where he was being held. Last week guerrillas freed Thomas Hargrove, an American journalist who had been held since September, after a ransom was paid.