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Colombians Condemn Kidnapping of Presidential Candidate - 2002-02-25


The kidnapping of a Colombian Presidential candidate by leftist guerrillas has generated widespread condemnation in Colombia and internationally. Rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, seized the candidate Saturday as she was traveling overland to the former guerrilla enclave in southern Colombian which is now the focus of a government military offensive.

The kidnapping of Presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt was widely condemned Sunday in Colombia. Interior Minister Armando Estrada Villa called on her captors not to harm Ms. Betancourt and to free her quickly. Leading Presidential candidate Alvaro Uribe urged the United Nations to send a humanitarian mission to the region where she was kidnapped to seek her release.

Other Presidential candidates also called for her to be freed immediately.

French President Jacques Chirac expressed concern about the kidnapping in a telephone call Sunday to Colombian President Andres Pastrana. Ms. Betancourt, who was married to a French diplomat, is well-known in France after publishing a best-selling book there last year.

Ms. Betancourt, who was traveling with her campaign manager and several other people, was seized by FARC guerrillas Saturday at a roadblock in southern Colombia. Campaign manager Clara Rojas also was kidnapped though the rebels freed the other three members of the group after holding them for a few hours.

Ms. Betancourt was traveling from the city of Florencia to San Vicente del Caguan, the main town in the former guerrilla zone that is now being attacked by government troops. She made the trip despite warnings by authorities that it was too dangerous. However, she told reporters she wanted to go to San Vicente to show support for the people living there.

San Vicente was reoccupied by government troops early Saturday as part of a massive military deployment to retake the zone after President Pastrana Wednesday dissolved the rebel enclave and broke off peace talks. He acted after guerrillas hijacked a plane Wednesday and kidnapped a Colombian Senator that was on board.

Mr. Pastrana created the demilitarized zone, which was about the size of Switzerland, in late 1998 as part of an agreement with the FARC for opening negotiations on ending Colombia's decades-long conflict.

However, the talks made little progress and the FARC used the 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.

On Sunday, thousands of government troops continued their deployment through the former rebel territory, re-occupying two more towns in the region. Except for occasional roadblocks, the guerrillas have kept out of sight and avoided engagements.

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