Pastrana returns to Colombia as hostage estimate rises
June 1, 1999
BOGOTA, Colombia (CNN) -- Colombian President Andres Pastrana cut short an international trip Tuesday to oversee the search for victims of a mass abduction, as officials raised their estimate of the number still held captive to as many as 95.
A force of 3,000 soldiers and members of elite police counterinsurgency units scoured the mountains of southwestern Colombia for the third day, looking for the hostages and their kidnappers, believed to be guerrillas from the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN). The security forces were backed by helicopter gunships and airplanes.
Gunmen seized the hostages from a Roman Catholic church in the exclusive "El Jardin" neighborhood of Cali during Sunday Mass. On Tuesday, the attorney general's office said that the number still being held could reach 95, much higher than the army's earlier estimate of 60.
"We are in the process of refining a list ... that up to now gives us a total of 180 people that were kidnapped," Paulo Elias Gonzalez of the attorney general's office told reporters.
An exact hostage count is hard to pin down, Gonzalez said, because it was unclear precisely how many people were in the church at the time of the attack and because some victims were counted twice. Eighty-four captives were freed in the initial hours after the abduction as security forces pressed their pursuit of the kidnappers.
Pastrana planned to fly directly from Toronto, Canada, to Cali and will preside over a security council meeting of Cabinet ministers and defense officials upon his arrival later Tuesday, his press office said.
He had been in Canada on a state visit since Sunday, arriving just after news of the kidnapping broke. He had planned to return to Canada on Thursday after stopping in Toronto and Calgary and visiting the New York Stock Exchange.
Pastrana had been forced to cancel plans to travel to a Latin American summit in Mexico last week amid a virtual revolt in the military after his defense minister resigned to protest a demilitarization deal the government has made with the country's main guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The embattled president decided to press ahead with the visit to Canada, however, although events in Cali had become major world news long before his jet landed in Ottawa.
Despite the Cali situation, aides said he had planned to meet investment bankers in New York, before flying home Friday.
But the scope of the hostage crisis, which brought Colombia's guerrilla war to the doorstep of a wealthy urban community, apparently prompted him to call a news conference in Ottawa Tuesday, where he announced he was returning to Colombia.
While the ELN, Colombia's second-largest rebel group, has not publicly taken responsibility for the abduction, witnesses said the kidnappers bore its insignia on their uniforms.
The kidnapping represents another blow to Pastrana's effort to end South America's longest-running guerrilla war, a goal that he has made the top priority of his 10-month-old government.
Political analysts have interpreted the attack as an attempt by the ELN to pressure the government to resume negotiations, which broke off in March after Pastrana refused to approve a demilitarized zone for the group.
The government launched high-profile peace talks with the FARC, Colombia's most powerful rebel army, in January. Pastrana also ceded it control over a Switzerland-sized area of southern Colombia since November. The move was meant as a confidence-building measure to start negotiations to end a conflict that has killed more than 35,000 Colombians over the last decade.
The government rejected demands that it create a similar "safe haven" for the ELN, however, treating it like a "poor cousin" of the larger FARC.
Pastrana said Monday that there would be no moves toward peace negotiations until the ELN had released all of the captives.
On Tuesday, he sought to deflect charges that his unequal treatment of the FARC and ELN had anything to do with the Cali kidnapping in his remarks to reporters.
"This wasn't against Pastrana or Pastrana's government. This was against everyone and each and every Colombian," he said.
The ELN, a force of some 5,000 rebels in Colombia, uses kidnapping as a tactic to raise funds.
On April 12, the ELN commandeered an Avianca airliner on a domestic flight, forced it to land in northern rebel-held territory, and abducted all 41 passengers and crew -- 25 of whom remain in rebel hands.
Reuters contributed to this report.
Troops scour Colombia's mountains; about 60 remain captive after kidnapping
Presidency of Colombia
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