FARC rebels kill hostages during rescue attempt


COLOMBIA: FARC rebels killed a provincial governor, a former defence minister and eight soldiers they held hostage when the Colombian army botched a rescue attempt on Monday, the government and survivors said yesterday.

A rebel commander gave the order to kill Antioquia Province Governor Guillermo Gaviria, former Defence Minister Gilberto Echeverri and the eight others as helicopter-borne troops charged into jungle-clad mountains north-west of the city of Medellin in a daylight attack, officials said.

The dead were among 80 prisoners, including soldiers, congressmen, a former presidential candidate and three US civilian Defence Department contractors, whom the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia wanted to exchange for jailed rebels.

Only three captives held in the jungle camp, all of them soldiers, survived the rescue attempt.

The approximately 70 hostages remaining proposed for a prisoner swap by the rebel army known by the Spanish initials FARC are believed to be held in other parts of Colombia's inaccessible jungles. The FARC said their captives were killed in cross-fire.

"During the confrontation between FARC guerrillas and the fascist army, Governor Guillermo Gaviria and Gilberto Echeverri, along with other prisoners, were killed," the FARC said in an e-mailed communique. But the government said the guerrillas fled and no shots were fired as 75 troops descended by ropes from helicopters to advance through mountainous jungle in an operation planned over days after an intelligence tip-off.

"They killed my comrades in cold blood and ran off," Sgt Humberto Aranguren, who had been held captive in jungle jails for four years, told President Alvaro Uribe from a hospital bed, in footage broadcast on national television.

Another survivor told how he escaped by playing dead after the mortally wounded Echeverri slumped on top of him.

Gaviria and Echeverri, who served as a defence minister under former President Ernesto Samper, were kidnapped by the FARC in April last year when they led a march of 1,000 activists to call for peace in war-torn Antioquia.

The FARC has expressed impatience and anger with President Uribe, who says he will only agree to a prisoner swap if the rebels also free hundreds of ordinary Colombians kidnapped for ransom.

He said on television the rescue attempt's bloody outcome would not sway his refusal to give in to FARC demands. - (Reuters)