In a botched jungle raid pushed ahead by the military, Colombian rebels killed eight soldiers and two kidnapped officials
A rescue operation to release two hostages kidnapped by FARC rebels in Medellin ended in tragedy late Monday. The insurgent group frustrated the raid by killing eight soldiers and two prominent Colombian officials: Governor of Antioquia State, Guillermo Gaviria Correa and his advisor and former Defense Minister Gilberto Echeverri.
According to reports from the place where the operation took place, rebels began shooting hostages as soon as they heard military helicopters flying overhead. Three captive soldiers survived and no casualties among rebels were reported.
In a TV address late Monday, President Alvaro Uribe took responsibility for the frustrated rescue attempt and asked population for support "in Colombia's fight on terrorism". This is a new defeat on Uribe's hard-line policy to fight insurgency, as there is a growing public opinion to swap jailed guerillas for hostages, but the Government insists on going ahead with rescue operations.
The remains of Gaviria Correa and Gilberto Echeverri arrived in Medellin, as the City announced three days of mourning in honor of the victims. At the same time a growing debate reached Colombia's civil society on these facts, as Monday's shootout deeply shocked the population.
While the Army and the Government vowed to push ahead with more rescue operations, prominent members of the Catholic Church urged both parties to reinitiate peace-talks.
"It is our constitutional responsibility to bring home all the Colombians that these bandits have kidnapped", Colombia's military Commander Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora said. Uribe, also pledged to continue his tough stance against the rebels: "In this moment of pain, Colombia cannot surrender", he said. "We must now fortify our decision to defeat terrorism".
In declarations to the local newspaper "El Espectador", Bishop Luis Augusto Castro, spokesman of the Catholic Church urged Uribe to an immediate return to the negotiations table. "We have to look for a negotiated release of hostages", claimed Castro.
From France Melanie, the daughter of the kidnapped former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, asked France and all the friends of Colombia across the world to persuade President Uribe to look for a humanitarian deal with the rebel groups. "You cannot play with the lives of the hostages", said Melanie to France 2.
"Looking at these tragic results, we are going to insist that the government abstains from doing any military operations to rescue Ingrid (Betancourt)," said Juan Carlos Lecompte, the husband of the former presidential candidate, who was kidnapped at a rebel roadblock 15 months ago.
National Governments and human rights organizations condemned Tuesday FARC shootings. The Pope John Paul II said it was an "execrable action", while the US State Department regretted the assassination of the officials. Amnesty International, in turn, warned guerillas on "violations of International Humanitarian Rights".
Gaviria and Echeverri had been kidnapped on April 21, 2002, as they led hundreds of peace marchers from Medellin to the village of Caicedo to meet with FARC commanders.
Photo (AP): Pain at the vigil of Gov. Guillermo Gaviria Correa in Medellin.