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Colombia Rebels Hold Presidential Candidate Hostage - 2002-02-24


A Colombian presidential candidate and a severe critic of the leftist guerilla group FARC is being held hostage by the rebels after being seized. The candidate was traveling overland Saturday to reach the main town in the former rebel zone despite government warnings that the trip was too dangerous.

The spokeswoman for candidate Ingrid Betancourt says that the former senator is being held hostage by FARC guerrillas. Spokesman Diana Rodriguez said Ms. Betancourt's campaign manager, Clara Rojas, also is being held by the rebels.

Ms. Betancourt, who was traveling with several people, set off from the southern city of Florencia Saturday for San Vicente del Caguan, the main town in the former FARC enclave. She was warned by the Colombian military and government authorities that the trip was too dangerous.

Interior Minister Armando Estrada Villa told Colombia's RCN radio Sunday that even her security detail refused to go, but she insisted and left in a private car with several companions.

He said she was then reported missing when she did not arrive in San Vicente. Mr. Estrada Villa spoke to the radio station before the reports surfaced confirming that Ms. Betancourt and her campaign manager had been kidnapped. The rebels released the other members of the group.

San Vicente was reoccupied by government troops early Saturday as part of a massive military deployment to retake the zone after President Andres Pastrana Wednesday dissolved the rebel enclave and broke off peace talks. Mr. Pastrana created the demilitarized zone in late 1998 as a pre-condition for opening negotiations with the FARC to end the decades-long conflict.

However, the talks made little progress and the FARC used the 42-thousand square kilometer enclave to build up its forces and launch attacks elsewhere in Colombia. The guerrillas also held kidnap victims in the zone and allowed drug cultivation and trafficking to flourish. The peace talks almost broke down on several occasions over the past three years - including in January when the government was on the verge of dissolving the zone. However, at the last minute the FARC agreed to open talks on a truce, but then stepped up attacks throughout the country.

On Wednesday, a FARC contingent hijacked a plane and kidnapped a Colombian Senator - an action which prompted President Pastrana to break off the negotiations and retake the demilitarized zone.

Mr. Pastrana paid a brief visit to San Vicente on Saturday, where he again blamed the guerrillas for sabotaging the peace talks. For its part, the FARC has said it is willing to reopen negotiations with a future government. But in the meantime, guerrillas have been carrying out attacks against electrical towers and other Colombian infrastructure throughout the country. Presidential elections will be held in May and Mr. Pastrana will step down in August.

Kidnapped Presidential candidate Betancourt is a former Senator and a critic of the FARC but is running far behind some of the candidates in opinion polls. However, she was one of several candidates who visited the rebel zone earlier this month to meet with the FARC and urge quicker progress in the peace talks.

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