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
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
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
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.