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International Outcry Mounts Over Colombian Kidnapping - 2002-02-25

An international outcry continues to build over the kidnapping of a Colombian presidential candidate by leftist guerrillas, while she was travelling Saturday toward a former rebel zone now being attacked by government troops.

The kidnapping is being characterized both domestically and internationally as an attempt by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, to undermine next May's presidential election.

Colombian President Andres Pastrana denounced the kidnapping of candidate Ingrid Betancourt accusing leftist guerillas Monday of trying undermine democracy. He said, "Kidnapping a presidential candidate, kidnapping members of Congress, and kidnapping ordinary Colombians is like a kidnap of democracy."

Mr. Pastrana, who spoke in the southern city of Neiva, went on to call for Ms. Betancourt's immediate release.

These calls were repeated Monday by the European Union. In a statement read in Bogota Monday by the Spanish ambassador, Yago Pico de Coanya, the EU condemned her capture and also warned that the incident could affect May's presidential election. Amnesty International in London also issued a statement urging that Ms. Betancourt not be harmed, and called for her release. In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States "firmly condemns" the kidnapping.

Ms. Betancourt and her campaign manager were seized by FARC guerrillas Saturday while travelling overland in southern Colombia near the former guerrilla enclave. They were trying to reach the town of San Vicente del Caguan which had just been retaken by government troops after Mr. Pastrana dissolved the rebel safe haven on Wednesday and broke off peace talks with the FARC.

Mr. Pastrana acted after FARC guerrillas near the enclave hijacked a commercial plane Wednesday and kidnapped a senator who was on board. The demilitarized zone was created in late 1998 as a precondition for holding peace talks with the FARC.

Government authorities are examining the authenticity a FARC communique signed by a rebel leader confirming the guerrillas are holding Ms. Betancourt. The statement said she was seized as part of the FARC's policy of obtaining hostages to exchange them for imprisoned guerrillas.

Ms. Betancourt, a former senator who is running for President as head of an independent party, was warned Saturday by authorities it was unsafe to travel in the region. But she told reporters before setting out from the southern city of Florencia that she wanted to show support for the people living in the former rebel enclave.

Ms. Betancourt was one of four presidential candidates who visited the rebel zone early this month to meet with the guerrillas. A critic of the rebels, Ms. Betancourt also denounced corruption and inequities in Colombian society.

Formerly married to a French diplomat and well known in France for a book she published last year, the 40-year-old candidate was running far behind in the polls. Her political opponents have been unanimous in denouncing the kidnapping. Frontrunner Alvaro Uribe Monday called for her release, but also said the incident should not jeopardize the upcoming elections.