World Cup proves draw for Colombia kidnappers

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Guerrilla warfare is forcing tens of thousands of Colombians from their homes - and the president's press spokesman has been kidnapped. Our Latin America correspondent Phil Davison reports on drug-fuelled violence in the land of England's World Cup opponents.

William Parra, press secretary and spokesman for Ernesto Samper, the Colombian President, has become the country's latest kidnap victim.

Mr Parra was abducted, apparently by gunmen in the pay of drug traffickers, as he left the presidential palace last Thursday to watch the World Cup draw on television in which Colombia was drawn in the same group as England. One of the country's leading reporters, Lis Eduardo Maldonado of the RCN radio network, who was with Mr Parra, was also taken.

A group calling itself the Extraditables, previously known to represent the Medellin cocaine cartel, said it was holding the men, apparently to put pressure on President Samper's government not to extradite drug lords to the United States. The President issued a weekend statement demanding the immediate release of the two men.

The kidnappings were the latest blow to the beleaguered president, who has been accused of using cocaine cartel cash in his 1994 election campaign, and whose country is largely run by influential and heavily armed drug cartels, two Marxist guerrilla groups and a batch of right-wing paramilitary organisations.

The Extraditables was the name used by Medellin cartel boss Pablo Escobar and his lieutenants in the late-Eighties and early-Nineties to claim responsibility for a campaign of violence. Thousands of people, including politicians, policemen and journalists, were killed in an attempt to discourage Colombian leaders from heeding US calls for extradition. The campaign worked, until last week, when Colombia agreed to reinstate extradition to the US.

But as Christmas approaches, Mr Samper's most pressing concern is food and housing for the latest refugees forced from their homes by a war fought by Marxist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups. After three decades of kidnappings and extortion by guerrillas, the paramilitaries sprang up to wreak revenge and protect landowners.

The two sides rarely clash directly. But in recent weeks, the paramilitaries have carried out a string of rural massacres, picking out relatives of guerrillas or peasants they suspect of aiding the Marxists. In the past two weeks gunmen, widely believed to receive support from the Colombian army, have killed 60 people, shooting them in the head in front of their families.

The government has offered a reward of pounds 500,000 for the capture of Carlos Castano, the best-known paramilitary leader, of whom President Samper said recently "we will pursue all the way to Hell if necessary".