Rebels executed four longtime captives, Colombia officials say
Four military hostages who had been held for as long as 14 years were executed by Colombian rebels during a rescue attempt by the army in a southern jungle, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said Saturday.
He said three of the hostages were shot in the head and the other was shot in the back by fighters with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials, FARC. One of the dead was a soldier; the other three were members of the national police.
“We regret profoundly that these victims were killed in cold blood, in a state of absolute defenselessness,” Pinzon said at a hastily called news conference in Bogota, the Colombian capital. “These deeds will not remain unpunished. They will be brought to justice.”
He said the bodies were discovered at 10 a.m. Saturday in an unspecified area in Caqueta state shortly after combat during the rescue operation ended. One rebel was captured, he said.
One of the four victims was army Sgt. Libio Jose Martinez, believed to be Colombia’s longest-held hostage. He was taken prisoner when rebels overran his army base in December 1997.
The other victims were identified as police Col. Edgar Duarte Valero and police Maj. Elkin Hernandez Rivas, both seized Oct. 14, 1998; and police Lt. Alvaro Moreno, taken prisoner Dec. 9, 1999.
A fifth hostage, police sergeant Luis Alberto Erazo, was found alive Saturday night. He fled his captors when shooting began Saturday morning. He had been a hostage since 1999.
“To kill in cold blood hostages of more than 12 years has no justification,” President Juan Manuel Santos said. “It’s possibly the cruelest we have seen in many years.”
The FARC, Colombia’s oldest and largest rebel group, has over two decades captured dozens of military and civilian hostages to exchange for ransom or to make political points. It has warned the military that any rescue attempts would result in the executions of hostages.
On several occasions, the rebels have followed through on those threats, though the most notorious instance, the 2007 killings of 11 state legislators they were holding hostage in southwestern Colombia, was an apparent error. The rebels killed them mistakenly thinking army units were approaching.
Pinzon said that after brief combat Saturday, soldiers entered the FARC camp and encountered the victims in a “concentrated point.” He said chains that apparently had bound the hostages were found nearby.
A team of investigators has been sent to the site to determine the circumstances surrounding the killings.
Pinzon said the military had launched an operation 45 days earlier with intelligence that a FARC unit was in the area and that the rebels possibly “had hostages in their power.”
He defended the rescue operation, saying the military had the responsibility to “defend the human rights and liberty of all Colombians.”
The Colombian government has knocked the FARC on its heels in recent years with armed forces that have benefited from $7.6 billion in mostly military aid from the United States under Plan Colombia.
Alfonso Cano, the supreme leader of the FARC, was killed in a military operation this month. But his successor, who goes by the alias Timochenko, said in a communique after he was named chief that the rebels’ armed campaign would continue.
Kraul is a special correspondent.
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