Andres Pastrana, the Colombian President, who has staked his reputation on finding a peaceful way out of his country's 37-year civil war, was the target of an assassination plot by right-wing death squads, his secret police claimed.
Colonel German Jarmillo said two gunmen from the United Self-defences of Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary group loosely tied to the army, were apprehended at the weekend near the Magdalena river valley. They were carrying two pistols and radio communication gear.
On Monday, suspected left-wing rebels kidnapped the Attorney General's wife, Consuelo Araujo Noguera, Mr Pastrana's former culture minister, with two bodyguards and 27 other travellers on the road outside her home town, Valledupar.
Ms Araujo Noguera's brother, Fernando Araujo, a former economic development minister, was kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) in December and is still being held captive.
The alleged presidential assassins received their orders to kill on 20 July, Colonel Jarmillo said. A secret police investigation of possible terrorist cells had uncovered the plan to shoot Mr Pastrana while he toured an impoverished coffee-growing region, he said.
The arrested men were named as Yohan Porto Guarin and José de los Santos Hoyos. Both are linked to an AUC unit in the volatile Magdalena region – a stronghold for paramilitaries who act as militia for cattle farmers and landlords. These mercenaries, some of them rebel deserters, are held responsible for massacring villagers and trafficking drugs.
The AUC has demanded that leftist guerrillas declare an immediate ceasefire and it threatened to attack a controversial demilitarised zone in the southern jungle, which President Patrana ceded to Farc in 1998 to encourage peace talks.
The negotiations have repeatedly stalled, and the public has grown impatient because the guerrillas brazenly use the area, twice the size of Wales, as a training ground, weapons cache, coca and opium poppy plantation and a holding area for hostages.
The US State Department placed the 8,000-strong AUC on its list of worldwide terrorist organisations. Colombia's two leftist armies, the Farc with 17,000 troops and the National Liberation Army (ELN) with 5,000, also figure on George Bush's list of 31 terrorist groups that have international reach.
The AUC is waging a murderous campaign against rebels and suspected sympathisers. Salvatore Mancuso, its new leader, maintains that even though his fighters are now blamed for most human rights abuses in the country, they never kill innocent people.
At least 3,000 civilians die every year in the three-way insurgency. More than 1,700 people were kidnapped in the first seven months of this year, about a third of them by the Farc. Because of a freeze on financial transactions of terrorist organisations, ransom will continue to be the rebels' fund-raising tactic of choice.Reuse content