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Colombian Candidate Missing

February 24, 2002

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SAN VICENTE DE CAGUAN, Colombia (AP) _ A Colombian presidential candidate who is a severe and outspoken critic of leftist rebels at war with the government was reported missing Saturday.

Ingrid Betancourt, a former senator, had set off by car at 1 p.m. for San Vicente del Caguan, a town that was held by the rebel group known as the FARC until earlier this week when the military retook it. The drive from the city of Florencia should have taken about four hours and Betancourt was reported missing when she failed to appear by late Saturday, said Diana Rodriguez, her spokeswoman.

Betancourt, 40, was accompanied by campaign staffer Clara Rojas, a French free-lance photographer and a Colombian cameraman, Rodriguez said. The names of the photographer and cameraman weren’t immediately known.

Colombia’s government said in a statement that it had warned Betancourt not to make the trip because it was too dangerous. Officials had turned down requests by Betancourt for ground and air transportation to San Vicente.

Two other presidential candidates, Noemi Sanin and Horacio Serpa, heeded the military’s warning and postponed visits to San Vicente, the government said.

Betancourt was last seen at 3 p.m. at an army checkpoint on the road, where a commander urged her party not to continue, the government said.

She had planned to meet with San Vicente Mayor Nestor Leon Ramirez, a member of her political party, and spend the night at a priest’s residence in town. She told reporters earlier Saturday she was determined to reach San Vicente, some 170 miles south of Bogota, to stage a rally for ``respect for human rights.″

Ramirez told The Associated Press he was not able to call Betancourt because all telephone lines in the region, about 170 miles south of Bogota, were down.

Ramirez said he hoped Betancourt stopped for the night in one of several tiny villages along the highway.

``We’re worried about her fate,″ he said.

Betancourt’s husband, Juan Carlos Lecompte, said Betancourt went ahead despite the warnings of danger because she believed she needed to be with San Vicente’s people ``during the good and the bad.″

San Vicente is the former capital of a swath of southern Colombia controlled by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, until this week. President Andres Pastrana had ceded the zone in 1998 in hopes of brokering an end to Colombia’s 38-year-old war.

But citing repeated FARC attacks on military and civilian targets, Pastrana revoked the zone on Wednesday and ordered the military to reoccupy the area. Army troops entered San Vicente at dawn Saturday.

Despite the increased government presence, the road between Florencia and San Vicente has yet to be secured.

Earlier Saturday, FARC rebels detained a news crew with Colombia’s RCN television that had been traveling the same route to San Vicente. The rebels held the crew for five hours before allowing them to complete their journey, RCN said.

On the same road Thursday, an Associated Press team saw a 60-year-old woman get shot in the leg when a bullet fired by a FARC guerrilla ricocheted off a truck’s tires. The rifle-toting rebel, who was trying to immobilize the truck to block traffic on the road, fled.

Despite her opposition to the rebels, Betancourt had received little support in recent presidential polls.

She was one of four presidential candidates who traveled into guerrilla territory in February to cajole rebel and government peace negotiators to make progress.

During a nationally televised forum, she urged the government to give in to the rebels’ demand for aid for the unemployed. Then she turned to the rebel leaders.

``What were you thinking when you decided to join the guerrillas?″ she asked. ``Did you think the guerrillas would be involved in cocaine?″

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