Two prominent politicians and eight soldiers kidnapped by leftist rebels were killed during a rescue attempt Monday, dealing a blow to attempts between the guerrillas and President Alvaro Uribe to negotiate a prisoner swap and raising questions about the government’s decision to aggressively pursue the kidnap victims.
The bodies of Guillermo Gaviria, a provincial governor; Gilberto Echeverri, a former defense minister and peace negotiator; and eight soldiers were found in a camp belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC for their Spanish initials, about 180 miles northwest of Bogota in the war-torn province of Antioquia, officials said Monday. Three other soldiers were rescued.
“This is an extremely sad moment for the nation,” Uribe said in a televised address. “The FARC have committed another enormous massacre.”
The deaths were the latest twist in an ongoing effort by the rebel group to persuade Uribe to negotiate swapping about 80 high-profile hostages held by the rebels for hundreds of imprisoned guerrillas. Such talks would be the first rapprochement between the two sides since peace talks collapsed more than a year ago.
Among the hostages are soldiers, congressmen and three Americans, employees of a Northrop Grumman subsidiary captured this year when their plane crashed while mapping drug crops for the U.S.
Military officials said the operation began early Monday morning, when helicopters flew toward the rebel camp bearing 75 special forces soldiers. Some of the rescued survivors said the rebels panicked on hearing the helicopters approach and began killing the hostages.
In a late Monday night broadcast to the nation, the usually taciturn Uribe and his top generals offered a detailed review of the operation that amounted to a public plea for understanding.
They said the rebel group had murdered their prisoners before the Colombian troops arrived, and that no shots were fired during the operation. They offered no explanation for how the guerrillas managed to escape the encircling troops.
In a statement, FARC rebels said the men died after an attempted rescue operation by some 600 airborne Colombian troops. They did not specify who killed the men.
“We fully blame Mr. Alvaro Uribe for these acts,” a guerrilla said in a brief communique read to local media.
The botched rescue attempt was bound to renew harsh criticism about government attempts to rescue hostages. Public outrage at the rebels and the army followed a failed rescue attempt in September 2001, when a beloved former culture minister was killed by rebels fleeing an army patrol.
Elected on a promise to crack down on the guerrillas, Uribe has been reluctant to negotiate, fearing that it would only encourage further kidnappings.
But coincidentally Monday, he gave a speech outlining for the first time the conditions under which he would talk with the guerrillas to reach an accord, including the participation of the United Nations and the release of all the hundreds of kidnap victims held by the FARC. The guerrillas have repeatedly rejected both conditions.
The idea of an accord touches a powerful nerve in Colombian society, among both rich and poor, many of whom have friends, spouses and children among the captured hostages.
Gaviria and Echeverri were kidnapped in April 2002 while leading an anti-violence march only a few miles from where their bodies were discovered Monday.