Two More Colombian Lawmakers Freed
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ A leader of Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary group released two more members of Congress on Tuesday, but still holds three others who were kidnapped to protest the government’s peace initiatives with leftist rebels.
Lawmakers Jose Ignacio Mesa and Alvaro Velasquez were handed over to human rights officials near the northern town of Chigorodo, government peace envoy Camilo Gomez was quoted as saying by the official news agency, ANCOL.
Carlos Castano, leader of the rightist United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, had pledged to release all seven legislators whom his gunmen had kidnapped in the past two weeks. Two were freed Monday and the remaining three still held by the AUC were expected to be released.
Castano has called the kidnapping a protest against President Andres Pastrana’s handling of peace talks with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Castano claims Pastrana has been too soft on the powerful guerrilla group and demands a seat at the peace table for his landowner-backed paramilitary forces.
Pastrana has refused to open negotiations with the AUC or grant them formal political status as he has done for the rebels. The FARC vehemently opposes including Castano in the peace talks.
A $1.3 billion U.S. anti-drug aid package for Colombia is conditioned on more government progress in dismantling Castano’s organization _ which is accused of committing widespread human rights abuses such as the massacres of suspected rebel sympathizers _ and severing AUC ties to the Colombian military.