Rebels blamed for Colombian governor’s kidnapping in 1st major political abduction in years

By Vivian Sequera, AP
Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Colombian rebels blamed for governor’s abduction

BOGOTA — The Colombian military searched rugged southern jungles Tuesday for a governor seized by a commando unit of suspected leftist rebels in the country’s first major political kidnapping in years.

At least 10 men in military uniforms abducted Gov. Luis Francisco Cuellar from his home in Florencia, capital of the southern state of Caqueta, late Monday, killing a police guard and blasting open the governor’s door with explosives, the state’s top security official, Edilberto Ramon Endo, told The Associated Press.

“He was taken in his pajamas from his bedroom,” where he and his wife were resting, and spirited away in an automobile. The abductors wounded two police officers with gunfire as they fled, Endo said.

A furious President Alvaro Uribe, whose rancher father was killed by leftist rebels in a botched 1983 kidnapping, ordered soldiers and police to rescue Cuellar, who is also a cattle rancher.

“We cannot continue to submit to the whims of the terrorists, of the terrorists who bathe this country in blood,” he told reporters in Bogota.

Defense Minister Gabriel Silva read a statement after meeting with senior military and police officials in Florencia, blaming the kidnapping on an elite commando unit of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Caqueta has long been a FARC stronghold: The 69-year-old Cuellar had been kidnapped for ransom there four times beginning in 1987. His wife, Himelda Galindo, told the AP that he was held from two to seven months in previous abductions. She said she didn’t remember how much ransom they paid.

Caqueta is among Colombian states with the highest military presence, including a division headquarters in Florencia. The military high command was clearly upset that Cuellar was only being guarded by a single police officer, when, according to Interior Minister Fabio Valencia, he has an eight-member security detail.

It was in Caqueta where the FARC abducted French-Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt in 2002, the last year in which it recorded politically motivated kidnappings of state governors and congressmen.

After Uribe was elected that year to his first term, kidnappings that had been common in Colombia’s countryside sharply diminished.

The conservative president launched a full frontal assault on the FARC that he called “Democratic Security,” nearly doubling the size of Colombia’s military and benefiting from $700 million in annual U.S. military aid.

His government’s July 2008 rescue of Betancourt was a triumph of Uribe’s determined campaign to decimate the rebels.

Nevertheless, Silva said in a newspaper interview last weekend that Colombia’s largest rebel army is “neither vanquished nor in its death throes” — though it has been reduced by desertions and killings to about 8,000 fighters, half its size in 2002.

Silva announced a $500,000 reward for information leading to Cuellar’s liberation.

The 45-year-old FARC did not immediately take responsibility for the kidnapping, but analysts had little doubt it was behind the bold, pre-Christmas action. The FARC has a history of launching attacks at this time of year.

On Dec. 21, 1997, the rebel group killed at least a dozen troops and seized several others in an attack on the remote highlands outpost of Patascoy. One of those captured, Cpl. Pablo Emilio Moncayo, is now among the longest-held of 24 troops and police the rebels keep as bargaining chips.

Through intermediaries, the FARC has in recent weeks been negotiating Moncayo’s release.

The soldier’s father, Gustavo Moncayo, said Tuesday that he feared Uribe was putting his son’s life in jeopardy by ordering a military rescue of Cuellar.

“This man doesn’t care about the lives of the abducted. He doesn’t care a thing about the lives of the soldiers and the police,” Moncayo said in a telephone interview.

The rebels, who fund their insurgency chiefly from the cocaine trade, released the last of the politicians they held in February.

Associated Press Writers Frank Bajak, Luisa Fernanda Cuellar and Cesar Garcia contributed to this report.

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