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15 down, 3,000 more Colombian hostages to go

Demonstrators protest kidnappings during a march marking Colombia’s independence day in Panama City on Sunday.

Associated Press

Demonstrators protest kidnappings during a march marking Colombia’s independence day in Panama City on Sunday.

The dramatic rescue earlier this month of 15 hostages held by communist guerrillas in Colombia was a day of mixed emotions for Robertina Murillo, 66.

"I felt great happiness for those who came home, but at the same time, great sadness for those who were left behind," she said. Among them is her son, Colombian army Maj. Enrique Murillo, held almost 10 years.

As the freed hostages — including three American defense contractors held for more than five years — piece their lives together, the families of other hostages continue to wait, hoping their own happy reunion will come one day.

Some hostages are already in their second decade of captivity. In recognition of their plight, more than a million Colombians gathered across the country Sunday to call for the release of the hostages and an end to kidnapping. It was the second such nationwide demonstration this year.

In Paris, thousands gathered near the Eiffel Tower to hear a call for freedom from Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate in Colombia who was one of those freed July 2.

"There is a growing sense of solidarity with the victims," said Olga Lucia Gomez, who heads the antikidnapping group Pais Libre (Free Country). "People realize this isn't just something that affects individual families, it's everyone's problem."

Colombia's left-wing guerrillas — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army — have used kidnappings for decades to raise money for weapons and as bargaining chips with the government to negotiate the release of comrades held in military prisons.

The July 2 rescue operation was a huge morale booster for war-weary Colombians. It has also helped raise public awareness of the plight of an estimated 3,000 kidnapping victims, including 700 held by the FARC. Among them are 17 police officers, five soldiers and three politicians.

Enrique Murillo was captured in November 1998 when his police outpost was overrun by a FARC attack that left 70 dead and 40 in captivity. All of the lower ranking hostages were released in 2001 in return for FARC prisoners, but the FARC hung onto Murillo and his commanding officer.

Pais Libre says the exact number of captives is unknown because many victims have been missing so long they are feared dead. Relatives of the remaining hostages worry the July 2 rescue could reduce government pressure on the FARC. Among those freed were four "trophy" hostages: Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen, and the three American defense contractors, Keith Stansell of Bradenton, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves.

President Alvaro Uribe vowed Sunday to work for the release of all the captives. Despite fears of retaliation by the FARC against those hostages it still holds, officials say the hostages are worth more to rebels alive than dead.

The FARC has also come under pressure from influential left-wing figures, including President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and former Cuban President Fidel Castro. "Civilians never should have been kidnapped, nor the soldiers kept as prisoners in jungle conditions," Castro stated recently.

But the kidnappings continue. One of the most recent was Cecilio Padron, a Cuban-American businessman kidnapped in early April in Panama, where he runs a construction business. Padron, 66, was allegedly kidnapped by three Panamanian police officers who sold him to unknown Colombians. The officers have been arrested, and Padron's family has reportedly received calls asking for a $12-million ransom.

In Colombia, relatives like Murillo's mother sometimes go years without word from hostages.

Murillo's mother sends her son regular messages via a special early morning radio program the hostages listen to. Rarely do messages emerge out of the jungle.

The Murillos last got word in January, when they received a letter delivered by a released hostage. Murillo described himself as in good spirits but suffering pain in his joints from a decade of jungle dampness and sleeping in chains in a hammock.

He said he looked forward to reuniting with his wife and two sons. Sebastian, 11, was only a year old when his father last saw him. Leonardo, 10, was born one month after his father's capture.

"That's the cruelest part," said their grandmother.

David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com

>>By the numbers

Kidnappings

23,666 Kidnappings since 1996

12,250 Kidnappings committed by left-wing guerrilla groups

10 Average number of people kidnapped every day during 2000, the high point of kidnappings.

521 Kidnappings in 2007, a decline credited to improved security

Source: Pais Libre

15 down, 3,000 more Colombian hostages to go 07/20/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 22, 2008 3:53pm]
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