November 7, 2000

Warlord frees kidnapped Colombian lawmakers

                  BOGOTA, Nov 7 (Reuters) -- A high-profile kidnap drama, staged by
                  Colombia's right-wing paramilitary warlord to press for a role in peace talks
                  between the government and Marxist rebels, ended peacefully on Tuesday with
                  the release of six captive lawmakers, authorities said.

                  Two other legislators, including a former president of the Senate, were freed
                  Monday. The six turned over Tuesday, to delegates from the church and
                  International Committee of the Red Cross, were the last remaining hostages.

                  All had been held since late October and Red Cross officials said all were
                  apparently released unharmed.

                  Their return to freedom came after the government bowed to a key demand
                  from paramilitary chief Carlos Castano, who had insisted that a top government
                  official hold face-to-face talks with him to hear his critical views about efforts to
                  end a conflict that has taken 35,000 lives since 1990.

                  The meeting took place Monday in one of Castano's strongholds in a war zone of
                  northern Bolivar province, where Interior Minister Humberto de la Calle said he
                  held nearly three hours of talks with the feared paramilitary commander.

                  Castano has repeatedly demanded a role in now two-year-old negotiations
                  between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)
                  rebels, so he can confront his rivals on the political stage. But the government of
                  President Andres Pastrana has balked at having any direct contact with Castano,
                  and Monday's meeting with him was its first since Pastrana took office in 1998.

                  Local and international human rights groups say Castano's United Self-Defense
                  Forces of Colombia (AUC) commits most of the peasant massacres and other
                  atrocities in this Andean nation's brutal war.

                  De la Calle stressed that Monday's meeting did not mean the government had
                  opened parallel negotiations with Castano, whose outlaw militia of roughly 6,500
                  fighters targets leftists and suspected rebel sympathizers.

                  But Castano succeeded in grabbing the national spotlight with the kidnappings
                  and used them to insist that, sooner or later, his United Self-Defense Forces of
                  Colombia (AUC) will have to be given a seat at the negotiating table.

                  If he is invited into talks, analysts say Castano is likely to bargain for a generous
                  amnesty for his mostly working-class fighters and to defend the economic and
                  political interests of his staunchly conservative financial backers.

                  He could serve as what Colombia's monied elite would surely see as a useful
                  counterbalance to the communist-led FARC -- Latin America's largest and oldest
                  surviving rebel army -- which has called for sweeping socialist reforms including
                  a radical redistribution of land and wealth and an end to free market economic

                  The FARC has warned, however, that it would break off its so-far fruitless
                  peace talks with the government if the paramilitaries were given any role in them.
                  The FARC dismisses Castano as a puppet of the security forces.

                  Colombia has what authorities say is the highest rate of kidnapping anywhere
                  around the world, with nearly 3,000 cases reported last year alone. Gunmen of
                  the left and right frequently detain journalists, or prominent citizens, for short
                  periods to force them to publish communiques or denounce actions carried out
                  by their enemies.

                     Copyright 2000 Reuters.