BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Leftist rebels announced Thursday that 11 of 12 state legislators they kidnapped five years ago were killed last week, allegedly in a botched rescue attempt by an unidentified "military group."
President Alvaro Uribe took to the airwaves to deny the announcement, which was posted on a website linked to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Uribe said the government had not ordered a rescue attempt, and he accused the rebel group of the "assassination" of the lawmakers.
The rebels seized the group in April 2002 as the lawmakers held a budgetary session in the southwestern city of Cali.
The legislators were among 56 high-profile captives that Uribe had hoped the FARC would free in response to his government's announcement this month that it would release 193 imprisoned rebels, including top guerrilla commander Rodrigo Granda.
The death announcement provoked bitter outbursts by family members, aimed at the rebel group and at Uribe, who has refused to meet the guerrillas' demands for a demilitarized zone to facilitate a swap of hostages and government prisoners.
Faysuri Perdomo, sister-in-law of lawmaker Juan Carlos Narvaez, who reportedly was among the slain, said Thursday that both sides were "shameful."
"They should have returned our loved ones alive and they didn't do what was necessary," a despondent Perdomo said.
The rebel group's bulletin said the 11 died June 18 "in the middle of crossfire" that the statement said came when an unspecified military group attacked a camp where the hostages were being held. One legislator, Sigifredo Lopez, survived the attack, the statement said.
Inherently risky efforts
Organizations representing the families of the more than 3,000 hostages believed held by the FARC and other groups generally oppose rescue attempts as inherently risky.
"We've always said that a military rescue is a death sentence," said Diego Quintero, brother of lawmaker Alberto Quintero, one of those reported killed.
No bodies matching the descriptions of the legislators have been recovered, and there was no independent confirmation of the deaths.
"Today we find ourselves in the uncertainty of not knowing what really happened. We demand clear answers from the government and from the FARC," Diego Quintero said.
Uribe denied in his televised address that the government knew where the lawmakers were being held. Although he didn't rule out the possibility of military rescues in the future, Uribe said they would be undertaken only after families were informed. No such advisory was made in the case of the legislators because no rescue was planned, he said.
Uribe also disclosed that emissaries of France, Switzerland and Spain had met with FARC representatives this month and that another meeting was planned today in Geneva.
Rebels posing as soldiers seized the dozen lawmakers from the Valle del Cauca state capitol using the ruse that they were clearing the building because of a bomb scare. A bus used by the rebels to transport the legislators left Cali unhindered by police and delivered the hostages to a remote prison camp.
The issue of hostages is paramount in Colombia in the wake of Uribe's announced release of the rebels from prison. Uribe made the gesture at the urging of new French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who promised the family of former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen, that he would make her release a priority in his administration.
Urging the president
A recent video of the hostages showed several urging Uribe to create a neutral demilitarized zone in south-central Colombia where an exchange of hostages and imprisoned rebels could take place.
Uribe has refused to create such a zone, arguing that a demilitarized zone created by former President Andres Pastrana failed to stop warfare and allowed the guerrillas to operate with impunity.