Public protests after Colombian mayor's daughter kidnapped

Thousands of teachers and students have gone on strike in protest at the kidnapping of the 10-year-old daughter of a Colombian mayor, the latest episode of intimidation and violence by suspected left-wing rebels trying to ensure their candidates secure victory in elections.

Nhora Valentina Muñoz, 10, was snatched and bundled into a car while walking to school 10 days ago in a kidnap widely believed to have been carried out by a left-wing guerrilla army operating in the eastern province of Arauca. The kidnapping has sparked outrage even in a country with a long history of election violence where armed groups battle it out to put politicians in place who will provide protection for their smuggling and drugs businesses.

Teachers and fellow students have held rallies and religious vigils demanding the girl's immediate release. The Pope has also said he is praying daily for her safe return. The government has offered a reward, with the Interior Minister, German Vargas Lleras, calling the kidnapping a "crime against humanity".

The girl's father, Jorge Enrique Muñoz Calvo, told The Independent: "We are so concerned about her, and feel an emptiness all the time. She should not have to go through this," He said they were not sure who kidnapped her because no demands had been made. But the smaller of two rebel groups in the area, the ELN, blamed the bigger, FARC, for the kidnapping, and in a video message called on the local commanders to say what had happened to her.

FARC, a leftist rebel army that claims to be fighting against Colombia's elite ruling class, has traditionally funded its operations through drugs and kidnappings. It has been at war with the government since the 1960s.

Fabiá* Hernández from the Election Observation Mission (MOE) said political power had a direct influence over the control of illegal smuggling. "This means winning the elections can make big profits for groups, and the kidnapping of the daughter is a way to influence who wins the election."

Since campaigning began, MOE reports that in Arauca province, which borders Venezuela, six candidates and one government employee have been kidnapped. Eleven candidates have been threatened and a judge murdered. Across the country more than two dozen candidates have been killed in the past five months.

Mr Muñoz said a major concern was that his daughter might be injured in any rescue attempt.