Protests aim at rebels

Times Staff Writer

Hundreds of thousands of people marched in cities across Colombia and around the world Monday to protest continued abductions carried out by leftist guerrillas in the South American nation.

But the massive outpourings in Colombian cities and the scattered gatherings in Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Madrid and elsewhere were shunned by relatives of some captives. Opposition politicians in Colombia who said President Alvaro Uribe had overly politicized the day reluctantly took part.

That the event, weeks in the planning, was having an impact seemed evident in the timing late last week of the announcement by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, that it would release three more political hostages.


Former politicians Gloria Polanco, Luis Eladio Perez and Orlando Beltran, all believed to be in declining health, were to be released in Colombia to emissaries of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at an undisclosed place and time. They are among 3,000 kidnapping victims in Colombia held for the most part by leftist rebels, but also by right-wing paramilitary forces and by criminal gangs.

Last month, the FARC freed two women, Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez, who had been captive for more than five years, the first such releases since Uribe took office in August 2002. Uribe has rejected FARC conditions for a more comprehensive swap of hostages for rebel prisoners.

Classes across Colombia were canceled and many business and government offices were closed for several hours Monday as citizens of all ages and backgrounds marched to publicly repudiate this country’s largest leftist rebel group for its practice of kidnapping for political barter or ransom.

“It doesn’t matter what your political orientation is, today is a day for freedom for those being treated inhumanely,” said Pierre Potes, a 39-year-old architect, as he walked with hundreds of others to a meeting point for the march in north Bogota.

Officials in Bogota, the capital, estimated that at least 500,000 people marched here, most in white T-shirts signifying peace. Turnouts in the thousands were reported also in the cities of Cali, Medellin and Barranquilla, which is in the midst of Carnaval. The gatherings in cities elsewhere around the world were smaller, the Associated Press reported.

Monday’s event was the brainchild of three young Colombians who promoted it through the Facebook social networking Internet service. The idea spread to the point that more than 100,000 Facebook sharers around the world confirmed that they would march.

But groups such as Asfami- paz, which represents the families of 33 uniformed police and soldiers in rebel captivity, chose not to participate to avoid provoking the rebels or aligning with Uribe, whom some blame for not doing more to effect a humanitarian exchange.

Colombia’s largest opposition party, called the Democratic Pole, at first said its members would not join the march, then changed course only after stating that their participation should not be construed as support for Uribe.

Such political niceties were not on the mind of Sulma Rueda, 32, who marched in Bogota’s city center with her 6-year-old son. “Thank God I don’t have a relative held captive, but it hurts us all,” she said.

“We’re not talking about politics, just a condemnation of what the FARC does. We’re tired of it.”

Special correspondent Jenny Carolina Gonzalez contributed to this report.