Alvaro Uribe asked for support after a provincial governor, a former defense minister and eight others held hostage by Marxist guerrillas were killed Monday during a failed military rescue attempt.
“In this moment of pain, Colombia cannot surrender,” Uribe said during a televised address late Monday. “Now, we have to fortify our decision to defeat terrorism.”
A visibly upset Uribe told the nation that members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) on Monday had executed Antioquia Province Gov. Guillermo Gaviria and former Defense Minister Gilberto Echeverri, as well as eight military officers they were holding hostage in a rebel camp near the village of Urrao in Antioquia.
Uribe, himself a former governor and native of Antioquia, had confirmed earlier Monday that the military had mounted an effort to rescue the hostages, which involved 75 elite troops and five Black Hawk helicopters, although he insisted that the troops never engaged the rebels in combat.
Gen. Carlos Alberto Ospina, commander of Colombia’s army, said troops discovered the bodies Monday afternoon at the rebel camp located in a thickly forested and mountainous region. In a press statement, Ospina said the FARC guerrillas shot their captives after hearing army helicopters and then fled the area. He said Colombian troops did not fire on the FARC militants.
The rebels killed some of the hostages with close-range gunshots fired to the back of the neck or behind the ear, the president’s office reported.
Seven military officers, all below the rank of lieutenant, were found dead at the scene. The eighth soldier died en route to a hospital.
Three hostages survived the ordeal, though two of them suffered from gunshot wounds.
One of the survivors, Antinor Hernandez, said a rebel commander known as “El Paisa” ordered the hostages killed when the guerillas heard army helicopters.
“A rebel known as the Paisa … gave the order not to leave any survivors,” he said.
Hernandez, a member of the navy captured by the FARC three and a half years ago, said there was never any fighting between rebels and the troops.
In an alleged FARC communique read on local radio, a rebel spokesman blamed the deaths on the government and the army’s failed rescue operation. According to the communique, some 600 Colombian troops were involved in the operation.
”During the confrontation between the FARC guerrillas and the fascist army, Governor Guillermo Gaviria and Gilberto Echeverri, along with other prisoners, were killed,” the unidentified spokesman said, adding that the FARC had repeatedly warned the lives of hostages would be at risk if the government tried to rescue them.
FARC rebels kidnapped Gaviria, then a commissioner in the peace negotiations, and Echeverri in April 2002 as the men led a march of some 1,000 residents calling for peace in Antioquia, a province besieged by insurgent violence. Gaviria and Echeverri were planning to meet with FARC commanders to discuss a cease-fire agreement.
The ten dead hostages apparently came from a group of some 80 FARC prisoners, including dozens of Colombian politicians, nearly 40 soldiers and policemen, presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, and three U.S. defense contractors — all reportedly held in camps well ensconced within Colombia’s dense jungles.
The rebels have sought to exchange the hostages for jailed guerrillas, a demand the Catholic Church and family members of the hostages have pressed Uribe to accept.
On Monday night, Uribe said he would only consider an exchange if it was brokered by the United Nations and if the rebels agreed to free the hundreds of Colombian civilians they have allegedly taken, not just political captives.
Nearly 3,000 people are kidnapped every year in Colombia, most of them by insurgents demanding ransoms. The FARC finances some of its operations with ransom money.
Uribe, a strong critic of the previous government’s peace talks, has vowed to take a hard line against leftist guerrillas, far-right paramilitaries and drug traffickers in Colombia’s 40-year-old civil war, which claims thousands of lives each year.