Hostages caught up in Colombia's endless war

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The Independent Online
IN THE kidnapping capital of the world, the move is unprecedented. The families of the remaining 38 Colombian hostages abducted from a church in Cali a month ago by the National Liberation Army (ELN) have refused to pay for the release of their loved ones.

Gonzalo Gallo, a spokesman for the families, issued a paper explaining their decision to refrain from all ransom negotiations. "More than money is involved," he said. "Kidnapping is a violation of human rights."

Snatching hostages is the usual fund-raising tactic in Colombia, where at least 1,200 people are being held for ransom by Marxist rebels who use the cash for arms purchases, or trade hostages for imprisoned comrades. More than 50,000 citizens took to the streets of Bogota in a downpour last week to demand the release of all the hostages in the country. Crowds clad in wet white T-shirts held up placards that said "No More Kidnappings" and "Freedom now".

Among them was Cecilia Ruiz, aged 47, who was let go by the ELN last week, but whose 20-year-old son, Patrick, is still a captive. "Most Colombians who have the means to do so are leaving the country. After this, I think I would too, if I could,'' she told reporters. "What future is there for my children, or grandchildren, growing up in such chaos?''

President Andres Pastrana, who many blame for the rise in abductions after he ceded land to the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), has refused to negotiate with the ELN until all of its hostages are released unconditionally. The popularity of the conservative Mr Pastrana has plummeted, and a poll published recently in Bogota said three out of four voters were unhappy with him.

He has lambasted the ELN for freeing abduction victims in such a "piecemeal fashion". Groups of former hostages have straggled down the mountainside over the past weeks whenever the rebels wanted to send out a political signal.

The ELN guerrillas, seen as dangerous rivals to the FARC's strength, are thought to long for similar land concessions from the government. FARC, the biggest and oldest guerrilla force in Latin America, wrested autonomy for a Switzerland-size chunk of southern jungle, (42,000 square kilometres) plus a patch along the Panamanian border. To assert their presence as a formidable number two, ELN guerrillas hijacked a civilian plane in April and still hold most of its crew and passengers. Next they abducted the entire congregation of 140 churchgoers during mass in Cali. Most recently, they captured nine anglers returning from a Caribbean fishing trip.

General Jorge Mora, commander of the Colombian Army, criticised the growing peace attempts and warned Colombians that "this fight should not be perceived as limited to the armed forces and guerrilla groups. It is against all society."

Talks between the government and the FARC leaders are scheduled to begin on Wednesday but the ELN will be excluded unless its captives are freed. Both the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, and the populist Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, came forward in Rio de Janeiro, at the recent Latin American- European summit, to support Mr Pastrana's attempts to form a peace process

Even President Fidel Castro of Cuba is urging a negotiated settlement. Although he said he had supported armed revolution in the past, he said in Rio: "Circumstances have changed. There are other links, more union, and more understanding between all the countries of the Latin-American world and their new leaders."

Violence and class warfare have racked Colombia for over 30 years, and in the past decade alone some 35,000 people have been killed because of the continuing rebellion.