Wed, May 07, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Colombian rebels kill 10 hostages as rescue effort fails

REUTERS , BOGOTA, COLOMBIA

Colombian Marxist rebels killed a provincial governor, a former defense minister and eight soldiers held hostage when the army botched a rescue attempt on Monday, the government and survivors said.

A rebel commander gave the order to kill Antioquia Province Gov. Guillermo Gaviria, former Defense Minister Gilberto Echeverri and the eight others as helicopter-borne troops charged into jungle-clad mountains northwest of the city of Medellin in a daylight attack, officials said.

The dead were among 80 prisoners -- including soldiers, congressmen, a former presidential candidate and three US civilian Defense Department contractors -- whom the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia wanted to exchange for jailed rebels.

Only three captives held in the jungle camp, all of them soldiers, survived the rescue attempt. The remaining approximately 70 hostages proposed for a prisoner swap by the rebel army known by the Spanish initials FARC are believed to be held in other parts of Colombia's inaccessible jungles.

The FARC said their captives were killed in cross-fire.

"During the confrontation between FARC guerrillas and the fascist army, Gov. Guillermo Gaviria and Gilberto Echeverri, along with other prisoners, were killed," the FARC said in an e-mailed communique.

But the government said the guerrillas fled and no shots were fired as 75 troops descended by ropes from helicopters to advance through mountainous jungle in an operation planned over days after an intelligence tip-off.

"They killed my comrades in cold blood and ran off," Sergeant Humberto Aranguren, who had been held captive in jungle jails for four years, told President Alvaro Uribe from a hospital bed, in footage broadcast on national television.

Another survivor told how he escaped by playing dead after the mortally wounded Echeverri slumped on top of him.

Gaviria and Echeverri, who served as a defense minister under former President Ernesto Samper, were kidnapped by the FARC in April last year when they led a march of 1,000 activists to call for peace in war-torn Antioquia.

The FARC has expressed impatience and anger with Uribe, who says he will only agree to a prisoner swap if the rebels also free hundreds of ordinary Colombians kidnapped for ransom.

Uribe said on television the rescue attempt's bloody outcome would not sway his refusal to give into FARC demands.

"In the midst of our pain, I call on you not to flag in the task of defeating terrorism. We will reclaim those who escaped unharmed, heal those who have been wounded and ask those who have died to aid us in our task from heaven," he said.

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