Colombia: 1 million march to free kidnap victims

BFP Magazine


Colombia: 1 million march to free kidnap victims

Friday, July 6, 2007

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) - More than a million people marched through Colombia's major cities Thursday and drivers honked horns in unison in a mass protest to demand the immediate liberation of the country's kidnap victims.

In all, some 3,000 Colombians are being held by kidnappers, according to the anti-abduction citizens' group Pais Libre. Those being held include former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors in the hands of leftist rebels.

Thursday's protest was organized after leftist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said last week that 11 state lawmakers the rebels had held for more than five years were killed in a "crossfire."

Called by the government and the church, marches and "human chains" were staged at noon in different cities from the Amazon jungle outpost of Leticia to the Caribbean city of Cartagena.

Wearing white T-shirts and waving flags, thousands marched on Bogota's main plaza. Leading the march was President Alvaro Uribe, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Unconditional freedom now!"

Police said their preliminary estimate was that more than a million people marched nationwide. The demonstrations were the largest since October 1999, when an estimated five million Colombians joined in a nationwide protest against violence and kidnappings.

With the backing of entertainers including the singer Juanes, who appeared in Medellin, protests or moments of silence were also organized abroad by Colombian embassies and consulates in Poland, France, Brazil and New York.

"This march is by the people of Colombia against violence and against indifference," said Fabiola Perdomo, the widow of one of the eleven. "The armed groups, the government, the rebels, must look for another solution apart from more war."

Over the past decade, common criminals, far-right militias and leftist rebels have kidnapped more than 23,000 people, making Colombia the world leader in abductions. Over the same period, more than 1,000 died in captivity.

Even in a country accustomed to kidnappings, the reported killings of the 11 lawmakers from the western state of Valle del Cauca shocked Colombia.

The FARC said the lawmakers died June 18 when an "unidentified military group" attacked the camp where they were being held. Uribe accused the rebels of murdering lawmakers in cold blood, and participants in Thursday's rallies demanded the FARC turn over the bodies.

The FARC, Latin America's largest irregular army, says it will hand over the corpses only when military operations are scaled back in the zone where they were killed, thought to be in the country's southwest.

The FARC are holding some 50 prominent hostages, including Betancourt - a dual French-Colombian citizen - and the U.S. defense contractors, who they want to swap for all their imprisoned comrades, thought to number in the hundreds.

As part of any final deal, the FARC is demanding the government demilitarize an area the size of New York City for 45 days, which the group says it needs for a safe handover of the hostages.

In spite of the pleading of the families of the kidnapped pleading for such a zone, Uribe, whose father was killed in a botched rebel kidnapping two decades ago, has repeatedly rejected such a move, saying it would give the guerrillas a safe haven.

On the eve of the march, Uribe asked participants to back his decision not to demilitarize a zone.

"If the government turns soft, concedes this demilitarized zone and frees guerrillas so they can return to crime, this would signal a major retreat by the government," he said.

But the marches Thursday also reflected the nation's divisions over how to free the hostages. While many shouted support for Uribe's hard line, others urged the government to give the guerrillas their demilitarized zone.

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