Colombia says rebels killed 11 lawmaker hostages

Thu Jun 28, 2007 4:53pm EDT

(Adds U.S. State Department comment, names of U.S. hostages in paragraphs 13-15)

By Hugh Bronstein

BOGOTA, June 28 (Reuters) - Colombian President Alvaro Uribe on Thursday accused leftist rebels of murdering 11 kidnapped lawmakers last week while the guerrillas said they were killed during a raid on their secret jungle prison.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said the 11 were cut down in the crossfire when an unidentified military group attacked the camp on June 18.

But Uribe said government troops were nowhere near the area where the legislators were being held and called the FARC statement a ploy to cover up "this crime against humanity."

"No rescue mission was under way," Uribe said. "They were deliberately assassinated."

The 11 were captured along with another fellow provincial lawmaker in Valle del Cauca's capital city, Cali, in 2002.

"The most likely scenario is the camp was being attacked by an illegal paramilitary group and that the FARC executed the hostages," said Pablo Casas, an analyst with independent Bogota think tank Security & Democracy.

In the 1980s, rich Colombians organized paramilitary militias to ensure protection from FARC kidnappings and land grabs. By the late 1990s, both groups had become involved in cocaine smuggling and took to murdering peasants suspected of cooperating with the other side.

A visibly pained Uribe ordered the national anthem played in a televised ceremony where he accused the four-decade-old guerrilla army of the murders.

Family members of those reported dead appeared on television news programs tearfully comforting each other.

A BRAZEN RAID

Colombia was shocked when the FARC guerrillas kidnapped the lawmakers from the provincial capitol building by masquerading as soldiers and calmly escorting them onto a bus, saying they were being evacuated due to a bomb scare.

The 12 were among about 60 high-profile hostages, including three American defense contractors and French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, whom the government wanted to swap for guerrillas held in government jails.

But Uribe, whose father was killed by the guerrillas more than 20 years ago, said last week's crime reinforced his refusal to grant the FARC's demand for a safe-haven area to serve as a meeting place to negotiate a hostage swap.

Betancourt was taken by the guerrillas during her 2002 presidential campaign. Americans Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell were captured the following year while on an anti-drug mission.

"The responsibility for the deaths, as well as the responsibility for the well-being of other hostages that the FARC maintains, is with the FARC," said U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey in Washington.

"We call on them to release all the hostages they have, including the three Americans," Casey said.

Colombia's guerrilla war, fueled by the world's biggest cocaine trade, kills thousands and displaces tens of thousands each year.

The 17,000-member FARC was organized in the 1960s to force land reforms and other measures meant to close the wide gap that separates rich and poor in this Andean country. But even left-wing politicians say the group has scant popular support. (Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington))




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