Deadly abduction _ Colombia's rebels still threat

AP News
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Posted: Dec 23, 2009 2:00 AM

At the end of a day of anguish and frustration, President Alvaro Uribe soberly told Colombians that kidnappers had slit the throat of a southern governor during the country's first major political abduction since he took office in 2002.

The slaying of Caqueta state Gov. Luis Francisco Cuellar underlined the threat still posed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia despite years of being battered by the Andean nation's U.S.-backed military. The FARC didn't immediately take responsibility for the kidnapping, but it has a history of staging publicity-grabbing attacks during the Christmas holidays.

"In the midst of pain, we reiterate today all our determination to defeat these terrorists," Uribe said in a televised speech to the nation late Tuesday, less than 24 hours after Cuellar was dragged in his pajamas from his home in Florencia, capital of Caqueta state.

Uribe said senior military officials told him that "because security forces were in pursuit, the terrorists, so as to avoid gunfire, proceeded to cut the throat of the governor." He spoke in a grim monotone, a contrast to his anger earlier in the day.

Cuellar was grabbed by eight to 10 men in military uniforms who killed a police guard and used explosives to blow open the front door to the governor's home about 10 p.m. Monday, Gen. Orlando Paez, operations chief for the national police, told The Associated Press. Two other police guards suffered shrapnel wounds that were not life-threatening.

Uribe said the rebels first ditched and set fire to the pickup truck they had used to carry away the 69-year-old Cuellar.

His body, still clad in pajamas, was found lying at the top of a steep hill on Florencia's outskirts between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. Tuesday, said a police official who agreed to discuss the case only if granted anonymity because he wasn't authorized to make public statements. The discovery wasn't revealed by officials for more than six hours.

Earlier Tuesday, an angry Uribe, whose rancher father was slain by leftist rebels in a 1983 botched kidnapping, said he had ordered soldiers and police to rescue Cuellar, also a cattle rancher. Officials said 2,000 police and soldiers had fanned out into the hills around Florencia looking for the kidnappers who took the governor.

Officials also offered a $500,000 reward for information leading to Cuellar's abductors _ and Uribe said in his TV speech that the reward still stood. Colombia has effectively used millions in reward money to secure rebel defections and betrayals.

Cuellar had previously been kidnapped four times since 1987 _ not to create a political spectacle as was clearly the intent this time, but rather for ransom. His wife, Himeldo Galindo, told the AP before his death was announced that he had been held from two to seven months in those abductions.

Caqueta has long been a stronghold of the FARC, which finances its insurgency chiefly from the cocaine trade, and is among the Colombian states with the highest military presence, including an army division headquarters in Florencia.

It was in Caqueta that the FARC abducted presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian, in 2002 as she raced to a town where peace talks between the government and rebels were falling apart.

FARC rebels also seized some state governors and a congressmen in 2002, but until Monday night that had been the last year in which the movement abducted a leading politician.

It also was the year that the conservative Uribe was elected to his first term as president and launched a campaign to crush the insurgents.

Kidnappings that had been common in the countryside sharply diminished as Uribe pursued his "Democratic Security" offensive, nearly doubling the size of Colombia's military and benefiting from $700 million in annual U.S. military aid.

The July 2008 rescue of Betancourt was a triumph of that policy, though the military was badly demoralized last year by a scandal in which soldiers were accused of killing hundreds of innocent civilians and claiming they were rebels killed in combat.

Uribe's government says the 45-year-old FARC has been reduced by desertions and killings to about 8,000 fighters, half its size in 2002, but the rebels still engage in lethal hit-and-run raids that claim several hundred lives annually. Rebels killed nine soldiers in a night raid on an army post in Cauca state just last month.

Defense Minister Gabriel Silva cautioned in a weekend newspaper interview that Latin America's largest rebel army was "neither vanquished nor in its death throes."

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Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera, Luisa Fernanda Cuellar and Cesar Garcia contributed to this report.