Archive for Wednesday, May 7, 2003

Colombian government strengthens resolve to fight rebel terrorism

May 7, 2003

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— Colombian rebels began shooting hostages as soon as they heard military helicopters flying overhead, one of the captives said, describing a botched rescue attempt in which a state governor, a former defense minister and eight soldiers were killed.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe took responsibility for the failed jungle raid in an emotional television address late Monday during which he asked for the nation's support in Colombia's fight on terrorism.

But despite a growing public clamor to swap jailed guerrillas for dozens of remaining hostages -- including a presidential candidate and three Americans -- Colombia's military commander vowed Tuesday to push ahead with more rescue operations.

Gov. Guillermo Gaviria and former Defense Minister Gilberto Echeverri were among those killed in Monday's failed rescue. Three captive soldiers survived, two with gunshot wounds.

The governor and the former defense minister were taken hostage most recently, in April 2002; some of the hostages had been held for five or six years.

Army Cpl. Antinor Hernandez escaped by pretending to be dead.

"When three shots rang out, I threw myself to the ground and Gilberto (Echeverri) fell injured on top of me, and they shot him again and shot me in the leg," Hernandez told reporters late Monday. "But since I didn't move, they thought I was dead."

Another survivor, army Cpl. Heriberto Aranguren, said rebels grabbed the hostages as soon as they heard helicopters. Then they gave the order to shoot.

"They killed my companions and left running," Aranguren said from his hospital bed in a televised exchange with Uribe Monday night. "Thank God we came out alive to tell this story and tell the country what kind of people they are."

The third survivor, who was uninjured, met with the president Tuesday. Sgt. Pedro Guarnizo said that after the shootings, the rebels started to flee their camp when a commander ordered some to turn back to make sure all hostages were dead.

"I stayed down, and prayed," Guarnizo told Uribe and reporters, lying on the floor to demonstrate how he pretended to be dead.

Uribe pledged to continue his tough stance against the rebels, who have waged war in this South American country for 38 years. "In this moment of pain, Colombia cannot surrender," he said. "We must now fortify our decision to defeat terrorism."

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, holds dozens of captured soldiers and police, former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and several state lawmakers. The FARC is also holding three Americans captured when their plane went down in rebel territory in February.

Pope John Paul II expressed deep sorrow over the deaths and denounced terrorist attacks. The European Union said "the escalation of terrorism by the FARC shows an absence of any humanitarian feeling or respect for democracy."

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