Colombians take to streets in mass protests against kidnappings


COLOMBIA:TENS OF thousands of Colombians marched through Bogotá yesterday to demand the immediate release of hundreds of captives held in the country by different armed groups.

In what is believed to be the biggest mass protest in the nation's history, hundreds of thousands more joined protest marches in 45 towns and cities across the country.

There were also protests in many cities in Latin America, the US and Europe. Former hostage Ingrid Betancourt led the march in Paris yesterday.

Since 1996, nearly 24,000 Colombians have been kidnapped. According to government figures, 520 people were taken hostage last year - down from an average of 3,000 a year in the late 1990s.

There are currently more than 2,800 being held in rebel hideouts in the country's southern jungles by the two main guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) as well as the right-wing paramilitary United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia, known as AUC.

"It's imperative that all the hostages return to their homes, and all Colombian citizens protest peacefully to pressure the illegal armed forces to free the hostages," said Olga Lucía Gómez, executive director of the Free Country Foundation, a local organisation that provides support to kidnap victims and their families.

Dozens of people began to gather well before the start of the march in Bogotá's National Park. Most were wearing white T-shirts, some with the images of Ms Betancourt and loved ones still in captivity.

Yellow, blue and red Colombian flags hung from apartment balconies and buildings all over the city. Thousands of people dressed in white released balloons and walked along the capital's main avenue shouting "Free all kidnap victims now". By midday, an estimated 50,000 people were packed into the city's main square - just a stone's throw from Congress and the presidential palace.

Earlier this month, soldiers from Colombia's elite special forces rescued 15 high-profile hostages from Farc guerrillas in a daring operation in the south of the country. The hostage group included former presidential candidate Ms Betancourt, as well as three US defence contractors and 11 Colombian soldiers and policemen. Many had been in captivity for up to 10 years.

Colombia's vice president, Francisco Santos, led one of the 10 marches in the capital. Mr Santos was kidnapped by a group loyal to drug baron Pablo Escobar in 1990 and was held hostage for eight months. He has been an outspoken critic of the Farc, and Colombia's smaller guerrilla group, the ELN.

On Saturday Peruvian president Alan García marched with hundreds of members of the Colombian community in Lima before travelling to Colombia.

In the coastal city of Cartagena de Indias, three visiting US senators postponed their return home to participate in the march with the city's mayor.

President Álvaro Uribe was in the city of Leticia in the Colombian state of Amazonas where he met with presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Alan García of Peru. The three presidents took part in the march in the small frontier city that borders Brazil and Peru.

Colombian singer Shakira got the protest under way in the city's main stadium.

Sunday's marches coincided with Colombia's Independence Day celebrations.

Ms Betancourt and the 11 Colombians rescued with her on July 2nd appeared in the Colombian and international media to draw attention to the plight of kidnap victims in this Andean nation, and to call on all Colombians to protest.