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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ex-captive: Bogota prevailing over FARC


Staff writer

The recent bloodless rescue of 15 hostages in Colombia, including a former presidential candidate who had been held for more than six years, was seen internationally as a signal that the Bogota government was finally prevailing over the nation's leftist guerrillas.

News photo
Hostage no more: Fernando Araujo Perdomo gives an interview recently in Tokyo about being held captive by Colombian leftist guerrillas for six years. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Fernando Araujo Perdomo, who was Colombia's foreign minister at the time of the July 2 rescue operation, said recently in Tokyo that the successful liberation of Ingrid Betancourt, three American private contractors and 11 Colombian authorities was a significant achievement for his country.

"It showed that Colombia's security level is definitely improving," Araujo, 53, said. "At the same time, its success was the result of many other actions taken by the Colombian government against the insurgence over the years."

Araujo's words bear weight, as he also suffered six years of captivity. He managed to escape when government forces came to his rescue.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is notorious for taking hostages for ransom or for prisoner exchanges with the government.

High-profile hostages, including foreigners, are considered strong bargaining chips. The names of more than 700 people are on Colombia's official missing persons list.

Araujo was abducted by FARC on Dec. 4, 2000, while jogging in his hometown of Cartagena in the north. He had just resigned as economic development minister under former President Andres Pastrana.

Although he had no official position in the administration, the fact that he was a close friend of Pastrana probably made him a good target, Araujo said.

From that day on, Araujo was held captive for six years. During this time he was subjected to harsh living conditions in the jungle.

"It was an extremely tough experience, and I suffered terribly," Araujo said in an interview during his official visit in mid-July to celebrate the centennial of Japan-Colombia relations.

"I was very frustrated because there was nothing I was able to do," he said. "But even if I did not have my physical freedom, I would never let them take my soul away."

During his captivity, Araujo said he learned to accept the difficulties in everyday life, including the bad food as well as not having anything to read.

"I gave up my desire for things that I didn't have. All I cared about was how to be free in spirit," he said.

"I also wanted to be someone who my parents and sons can be proud of even though I was not near them. I thought all the hardships were part of the process for my liberation."

As with the case with other hostages, the government searched for Araujo. Finally, on Dec. 31, 2006, the military ran an operation to rescue him. Araujo learned later the government was able to discover his whereabouts because there were some within the guerrillas who leaked information to authorities.

That day, the military sent five helicopters with armed commandos. As they alighted, FARC members started shooting at them. As the firefight intensified, Araujo fled. He wandered in the jungle for five days before authorities found him and took him to safety.

In late February, only two months after his escape, Araujo was appointed by current President Alvaro Uribe as his foreign minister. His appointment was "an effective way to deliver a message against the barbarity of kidnapping by the FARC," according to Colombia's leading weekly magazine, Semana.

During his recent visit in Tokyo — his last official duty as foreign minister before he resigned on July 16 — Araujo said in an NHK TV interview that he was informed of the undercover military operation to rescue Betancourt and the other hostages. He said he prayed it would succeed.

"I was extremely grateful that it succeeded, and that the hostages gained their freedom again," Araujo said.

FARC has lost several senior commanders in recent months, and more than 2,000 of its members have surrendered this year alone, Araujo said.

"The Colombian government's fight against terrorism is bearing fruit," he said, stressing that the administration is not only taking strong action but calling out to guerrilla members that they are ready to help them return to society once they surrender.

On Colombian Independence Day on July 20, thousands joined rallies in Colombia and elsewhere to demand that FARC free the rest of its captives.

Araujo has written a book due out next month about his years in captivity.



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