Mass kidnapping underscores growing peril in Colombia |

Mass kidnapping underscores growing peril in Colombia


VILLANUEVA, Colombia (AP) – Paramilitary fighters freed more than 200 plantation workers who walked to safety Thursday after a bold kidnapping that illustrated the growing audaciousness of the right-wing militia fighting guerrillas for control of Colombia’s countryside.

The militia is backed by large landowners and allegedly by rogue members of Colombia’s U.S-backed military. Those ties have become a major source of concern in Washington as it provides Colombia with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to battle the drug trade that fuels the 37-year conflict.

The State Department recently classified the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, as a terrorist organization. Some Colombian and U.S. officials now say it may pose a greater threat to the country’s democracy than the rebels.

The mass abduction began Tuesday when paramilitary fighters – some wearing hoods – grabbed the farmhands off buses carrying them home from work at African palm oil plantations in eastern Casanare state.

It was apparently an attempt to recruit new members by force.

The kidnappers then selected out the younger men, loaded them onto trucks and drove them along the back roads of Casanare before crossing a river into neighboring Meta province, officials said.

As troops closed in, the hostages were freed late Wednesday. They walked until dawn before being discovered by troops patrolling the roads.

Back in Villanueva on Thursday, the freed workers got an emotional welcome from family and workers at the Palmar de Oriente plantation, where most toil for low wages under the blistering sun of Colombia’s eastern plains.

Some of the young men smiled and gobbled down empanadas, a deep-fried pastry filled with meat, rice and potatoes. Others cried in relief at having survived an abduction at the hands of the AUC.

The outlaw militia group has ties to drug traffickers and has killed thousands of villagers in massacres aimed at depriving the guerrillas of rural supporters. Between January and April of this year alone, the government says the group killed 529 people in massacres.

Over the past decade, the AUC has grown from a few hundred fighters to more than 8,000, aided by profits from the cocaine trade, and landowners tired of guerrilla kidnappings and extortions.

”They wanted to recruit us. They even gave one guy a uniform, but he said he didn’t want it,” said Julio Cesar Vaca, 18, one of a group of 201 freed workers who returned Thursday to the town, located 80 miles east of Bogota.

”They freed us because they got scared that the army would soon be upon them,” Vaca added. Doctors brought by the kidnappers examined the hostages to see which ones were fit to fight, and the workers were also forced to demonstrate they could march, he said.

Hugo, a freed farmhand who declined to give his last name for fear of retribution, said they were offered $65 a month to join the militia and were told they would be free to leave after three years.

The AUC has not publicly commented on the release. A statement faxed to a television station Wednesday by a reputed local AUC commander said the action was aimed at investigating guerrilla infiltration on the plantations.

Although human rights groups frequently accuse the army of aiding or turning a blind eye to paramilitary massacres, there were no charges that troops facilitated the kidnappings in Villanueva. Still, army officials made a point of defending their actions.

Gen. Eduardo Santos of the army’s Second Division said he had jurisdiction over eight states ”inundated” with guerrillas and paramilitaries, and had a large number of his troops tied down providing security for oil fields and pipelines.

Military officials deny there are any systematic links between the armed forces and the paramilitaries.

The AUC has kidnapped people in the past, including villagers, human rights activists, and politicians – usually for political reasons. But such large-scale abductions are usually carried out here by the guerrillas.

In April, guerrillas grabbed a group of 100 oil field workers in neighboring Arauca state. The workers were all freed within a few days after the rebels issued a statement protesting the government’s oil policy and demanding faster progress in peace talks.

The largest previous kidnapping was in June 1999, when leftist rebels of the National Liberation Army kidnapped 150 people from a church from Colombia’s third-biggest city, Cali. Many were freed within days, and the rest gained their freedom within months, some after paying hefty ransoms.

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