Kidnapped Colombian senator freed

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia have freed a former senator they kidnapped at the weekend with his wife and their five children.

Jose Gnecco's release removes a major obstacle to peace talks between the largest paramilitary organisation, AUC, and the government.

A Colombian paramilitary leader has said he was responsible for the kidnapping and apologised.

Talks aimed at demobilising the AUC's fighters are due to begin on Thursday.

"I want to thank God for returning alive. I want to thank the president, the government, the peace commissioner, the military and all those who contributed to my release," a sobbing Mr Gnecco told reporters after he was set free.

Call for probe

A delegate of the Organisation of American States had warned that the kidnapping could affect the outcome of the already shaky peace process.

Paramilitary leader Rodrigo Tovar Pupo - alias Jorge 40 - was barred from negotiations after the authorities accused him of involvement in the abduction. But the government has said he is now free to attend the talks.

In a statement to local media Mr Tovar apologised for the kidnapping, but urged authorities to investigate Mr Gnecco's financial dealings.

Another leader, Hernan Giraldo Serna, was also accused of involvement in the kidnap.

The kidnap incensed President Alvaro Uribe, who barred both leaders from peace talks and accused paramilitaries of abusing concessions agreed as a basis for peace negotiations.

Long-running insurgency

Mr Gnecco was kidnapped on Sunday along with seven family members and his chauffeur on a highway along the Caribbean coast.

His family and chauffeur were picked up early on Tuesday, some suffering minor bullet wounds, in what a local army general said was an army operation.

The peace talks aim to demobilise the group's 13,000 or so fighters by 2006.

The United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia - known by the Spanish acronym AUC - was set up 22 years ago to fight left-wing rebels.

Renegade sections of Colombia's armed forces have been known to collude with the AUC, which is accused of some of Colombia's worst human rights atrocities and is mostly funded through drug trafficking.

About 3,500 people are killed each year in Colombia's civil war, now four decades old, and thousands are kidnapped for ransom, mostly by left-wing rebels.