Catholic Church mediators who travelled to the jungles of northern Colombia to try to negotiate the release of seven foreign tourists said they were heading home after receiving no word from rebels behind the mass abduction.
“They (the guerrillas) have showed a total lack of interest,” said Bishop Ugo Puccini, a member of the church peace commission that travelled to the Sierra Nevada mountains last week at the government’s request, yesterday.
Gunmen seized eight backpackers – four Israelis, two Britons, a German and a Spaniard – from ancient jungle ruins in the Sierra Nevada on September 12.
One of the British hostages, Matthew Scott, 19, from Clapham, south London later escaped by hurling himself down a precipice. The other Briton, 31-year-old Mark Henderson, from North Yorkshire, remains in captivity.
Colombia’s smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, said it seized the tourists to raise awareness about the plight of impoverished villagers. ELN leaders have said they are prepared to free them if the UN and human rights group visit the Sierra Nevada to take a firsthand look at living conditions.
“We visited all the critical zones,” said Rev Dario Echeverri, the secretary-general of the National Reconciliation Commission and a member of the Sierra Nevada delegation. “But we received no response.”
Echeverri said he would now head back to the capital, Bogota. Nevertheless, he said, “we remain completely available” should the guerrillas want to talk.
A senior ELN commander said in an interview published on Monday that the backpackers were all in good health and again urged international groups to mediate in the abductions and visit the Sierra Nevada to examine human rights violations.
But Ramiro Vargas denied claims made by other ELN leaders that the group wanted to exchange the tourists for jailed guerrillas.
Late on Tuesday, the nation’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, met with a separate set of Catholic Church leaders to discuss a possible exchange between dozens of politicians and three US military contractors it’s holding for imprisoned rebels.
It was the first meeting between the Farc and an official commission since peace talks collapsed in February 2002.
“They (the rebels) want to move forward to reach a humanitarian accord” for a prisoner exchange, said Tunja Bishop Luis Augusto Castro, who took part in the discussions.
President Alvaro Uribe refuses to give in to the Farc’s demands, saying negotiations are only possible if the rebels lay down their arms.
Colombia is the world’s kidnapping capital, with more than 3,000 people taken hostage each year. According to Pais Libre, an anti-kidnapping group, children are frequent victims of the practice, with more than 200 youth kidnapped this year through August.
In a report released yesterday, it said more than half of the 200 children were kidnapped by common criminals, and the rest by the rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups.