Killing of popular Colombian cultural figure puts peace process in doubt

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The Independent US

Colombia's peace process was shaken on Sunday by the killing of a beloved folk music promoter and former culture minister days after she was kidnapped by rebels.

Consuelo Araujo's body, with two gunshots to the face, was found by troops late on Saturday in a ravine 9,800 feet (3,000 metres) high in the Sierra Nevada mountains outside Valledupar, army Col. Jose Mahecha said.

The killing of the 62–year–old Araujo, a former culture minister and friend of Nobel Prize–winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez and many other influential Colombians, severely tests President Andres Pastrana's policy of peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC.

A presidential candidate in next May's elections, Noemi Sanin, called for an immediate suspension of the peace process.

The talks began almost three years ago in a safe haven Pastrana granted to the rebels in southern Colombia but have produced no substantial results.

Pastrana had come under increasing pressure to produce results in peace negotiations or impose controls on the rebel safe haven, which expires at midnight on October 7. Pastrana has renewed the 16,200–square mile (26,129–square kilometre) zone several times, but has not said whether he would do so again.

Critics say rebels abuse the zone by using it to stash hostages and conduct military training. On Saturday, gun–toting FARC rebels prevented a caravan led by Horacio Serpa, a leading presidential candidate, from entering the huge safe haven to deliver a speech against the rebel abuses.

Serpa on Sunday said he was shocked by Araujo's murder, calling it an "unprecedented outrage."

The FARC kidnapped Araujo – who was a well–known folk music promoter and the wife of Colombia's inspector–general – and about 20 other people on September 24, according to witnesses and the authorities. The rebel group has not claimed responsibility for the abduction or commented on Araujo's death.

Thirteen of the hostages were freed a day after the mass kidnapping amid army pursuit.

Mahecha said troops on Saturday were combing the mountains and came upon a group of Indian huts where fires were burning. As the soldiers began to secure a perimeter around the area, rebels opened fire at them, Mahecha said. The rebels dragged Araujo and other hostages on foot into the woods.

Araujo, exhausted from the trek, fell onto the ground and refused to go any further. At that point, the colonel said, rebels executed her. He was told how the killing occurred by some of the five hostages who were freed during the clash.

On Sunday afternoon, two army helicopters with rescue personnel and a medical forensic team took off from Valledupar in the direction of the Sierra Nevada mountains in a last ditch effort to recover Araujo's body and the remaining freed hostages before nightfall.

Dense fog had made it impossible for helicopters to land in the treacherous terrain, where the hostages and soldiers remained stranded.

The FARC, which is considered a terrorist organisation by Washington, has some 16,000 combatants and has been waging a 37–year war against a succession of elected governments.

In Valledupar, Araujo's hometown near Colombia's Caribbean coast, hundreds of people gathered around her home on Sunday.

Araujo, who was minister from July 2000 until January, gained fame for promoting Vallenato music, an accordion–based folk music popular all over Colombia. More than 30 years ago, she founded an annual Vallenato festival that is one of Colombia's most important cultural events.

Last year, she led a visit to the White House by a group of child Vallenato musicians received by President Bill Clinton.

Araujo's nephew, Alvaro Araujo, a congressman, denounced the FARC as "terrorists," saying "their mask is coming off."