U.S. aid still far away for Colombians weary of drug wars, rebel kidnappings


WASHINGTON - When Congress recently approved a $1.3 billion package of economic and military aid for Colombia, hopes rose that Bogota would finally make headway against the murderous guerrillas and drug lords who have held the Andean nation in thrall for decades.

The bulk of the U.S. aid, however, won't be delivered until next year. Meanwhile, the weary and impatient Colombians may have to continue to tolerate rebel attacks and stalled peace talks.

The latest outrage came Sunday, when about 50 members of the National Liberation Army, or ELN, abducted dozens of civilians from two restaurants and a farm near the provincial city of Cali, in the heart of an area known for rebel cocaine trafficking. Among the about 80 people kidnapped were two U.S. citizens, both longtime residents of Colombia.

More than half the hostages, including the Americans, have been freed. The most recent release came Wednesday amid an exchange of gunfire between the kidnappers and pursuing soldiers. Two soldiers and seven rebels were killed, after which the kidnappers released 12 prisoners and fled higher into the mountains, the government said.

Among those freed Wednesday was Norma Sardi, a 70-year-old U.S. citizen who moved to Colombia as a child, according to her family. Sardi's Colombian son, Rodrigo, 42, was among the 30 or so people still held by the guerrillas yesterday.

"It's good that they could rescue her, but my brother is still there," said Dr. Armando Sardi, a Baltimore-area oncologist. After speaking to his mother by phone yesterday, he described her ordeal as "a horrendous experience."

A second U.S. hostage with Maryland connections, Elena Gould de Lima, 58, was released Monday. De Lima grew up in Baltimore and moved to Colombia more than three decades ago after marrying a Colombian physician.

Sunday's kidnapping, the largest mass abduction in Colombia this year, was the latest of several blows against President Andres Pastrana's efforts to reach a negotiated solution with Marxist rebels and end decades of conflict.

Bogota has been holding sporadic talks with the country's biggest insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and had planned to begin formal talks with the ELN.

Both rebel groups demand a role in government and justice for Colombia's poor. But neither group has demonstrated good faith, and after Sunday's kidnappings, Colombians' patience with the peace process showed signs of wearing thin.

Recent opinion polls disapprove of Pastrana's handing of peace talks with the FARC and faulted his handling of negotiations with the 5,000-member ELN.

"The Colombians are really concerned about this," said a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "This may really be a major setback to the peace talks. The Colombians really did not expect the ELN to engage in this, and they did. It's not good."

On Tuesday, Luis Carlos Villegas, head of the National Industrialists Association, a big-business group, called on Pastrana to halt the peace process if ELN will not release all hostages.

Kidnappings have become a common way for Colombian rebel groups to try to finance their insurgency. Sunday's abductions were similar to last year's ELN kidnapping of more than 150 people from a Cali church.

Last week, FARC kidnapped two Russian engineers who were working on a dam project, then released them Wednesday. Two Italians kidnapped by FARC last Friday were still being held yesterday.

ELN has mounted attacks on oil pipelines and refineries, depriving Colombia of much-needed revenue at a time when petroleum prices are at 10-year highs.

The $1.3 billion U.S. aid package, which includes 60 armed helicopters, is intended to force FARC and ELN to the negotiating table by cutting off another source of their revenue: proceeds from cocaine and heroin sales. The helicopters are supposed to give more punch to Colombian drug-eradication operations.

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