Guerrillas hold Colombian presidential candidate

Click to follow
The Independent US

A presidential candidate who accused guerrilla leaders of drug trafficking in a recent meeting was being held hostage by the same rebel group in southern Colombia's war zone.

An anxious nation awaited word of Ingrid Betancourt's fate from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, who are locked in battle with government troops after the collapse of peace talks last week.

Betancourt and her campaign manager, Clara Rojas, were kidnapped at a roadblock as they were driving toward San Vicente del Caguan, a rebel town occupied by government troops Saturday, campaign officials confirmed on Sunday.

The rebel group known as FARC made no immediate announcement about the kidnapping.

"We have to wait for the FARC to say why they kidnapped the presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt, to know what decisions can be taken and how to manage this difficult situation," said Interior Minister Armando Estrada Villa.

President Andres Pastrana gave the FARC a safe haven the size of Switzerland in 1998 to prod them to talk about ending Colombia's 38­year civil war. He called off the talks and sent in troops after a string of FARC attacks that culminated with Wednesday's hijacking of a civilian airliner and the kidnapping of a prominent senator.

Betancourt, 40, was one of four presidential candidates who traveled into guerrilla territory in February to cajole rebel and government peace negotiators to make progress. At a nationally­televised roundtable with senior guerrilla commanders, she lambasted the FARC for getting involved in the cocaine trade to finance its war.

"What were you thinking when you decided to join the guerrillas?" she asked the FARC leaders. "Did you think the guerrillas would be involved in cocaine?"

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees condemned her kidnapping. French President Jacques Chirac telephoned Pastrana on Sunday to express his concern and also asked UN Secretary­General Kofi Annan to try to win Betancourt's release.

Betancourt is well known in France, where she spent her college years and, last year, launched a best­selling memoir. She is also divorced from a French diplomat.

Three men traveling in the same car as Betancourt, including two Colombians and a French photographer, were detained for several hours by the rebels and released.

News of the kidnapping overshadowed the low­intensity ground offensive against the FARC. A former senator for the "Oxygen­Green" party, Betancourt is widely known in Colombia for her outspoken criticism of corruption in high places. But polls put her near the bottom of a large field of candidates heading into the May 26 presidential election.

Pastrana's government suggested Betancourt had been "irresponsible" for traveling into the war zone from the southern city of Florencia. Officials had warned her not to go.

After capturing San Vicente del Caguan, the army occupied the towns of Vista Hermosa and Mesetas, in the eastern half of the rebel zone, without incident on Sunday.

Troops say they're moving slowly to avoid ambushes and minefields.

Thousands of FARC fighters melted into the countryside, popping out from time to time to erect roadblocks and topple utility towers. Like San Vicente del Caguan, the town of Granada on the eastern edge of the zone was without power Sunday night. Army Capt. Jorge Florez said troops were investigating whether the Granada blackout was the rebels' work.

In Vista Hermosa, soldiers tore down a yellow billboard with the likeness of Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Army chief Gen. Jorge Mora assured a crowd of 2,000 residents they would be safe now, saying, "you are Colombians and you never ceased to be."

Comments