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Colombian President’s Ally Escapes Attack

October 16, 2003

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Suspected rebels fired a shoulder-held rocket at a close ally of President Alvaro Uribe on Wednesday, narrowly missing the prominent cattleman in a bold attack in the heart of the Colombian capital, police said.

Jorge Visbal, the president of Colombia’s National Livestock Federation, later told RCN Radio the attack happened when he got out of his car and headed into the organization’s building in downtown Bogota at around 9 a.m. The rocket, which was fired from a passing car, narrowly missed his vehicle and slammed into the building, but caused little damage.

Police believe the attack was the work of Colombia’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. It is active in the surrounding area, said Jorge Noguera, the director of Colombia’s secret police. He did not give further detail.

Visbal is a close ally of Uribe and a fierce critic of leftist rebels who have fought a four-decade war to topple the government. In the last four years, suspected FARC rebels have destroyed two of Visbal’s ranches.

Police detained two of three suspects, recovered the rocket launcher and confiscated the assailants’ vehicle. One of the two suspects, a woman, was wounded in a shootout with security forces and was taken under police escort to a hospital, police said.

Defense Minister Martha Lucia Ramirez offered a $17,500 reward for information leading to more captures.

The FARC was also blamed for killing two city council members in central Colombia, one in the town of Rio Blanco in Huila state, and the other in Murillo in Tolima state.

Police said gunmen killed Hermogenes Vargas on Tuesday after dragging him out of his vehicle while he was driving outside of Rio Blanco, 110 miles southwest of Bogota.

Vargas was running for re-election, and was only the latest in a growing list of politicians killed by the rebels and right-wing paramilitary fighters in the run-up to the Oct. 26 state and mayoral elections.

The body of Rigoberto Hernandez, the Murillo council member, was found Tuesday in a rural area outside the town, 70 miles west of Bogota. He had been snatched from his house along with his brother by various armed men on Saturday, police said.

Also Tuesday, a car bomb exploded several blocks from the town hall in Saravena, 235 miles northeast of Bogota, police said. Five people were injured in the attack.

National police chief Gen. Teodoro Campo said the attack had the hallmarks of the FARC, which is active in the surrounding area. He did not give further details.

Colombia’s civil war pits the FARC and a smaller rebel group against the government and the paramilitary fighters. About 3,500 people, mainly civilians, die in the fighting each year.

Also Tuesday, rebels met with Roman Catholic Church leaders to discuss a possible exchange of rebel hostages for imprisoned guerrillas. It was the first meeting between the group and an official commission since peace talks collapsed in February 2002.

``They (the rebels) want to move forward to reach a humanitarian accord″ for a prisoner exchange, said Tunja Bishop Luis Augusto Castro, who took part in the discussions.

Uribe is opposed to making deals with the rebels, but has said he would be open to talks if the FARC announces a unilateral cease-fire.

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