Millions march against Colombia rebels
Plugged by Web, global event seeks end to abductions
BOGOTA - Millions of Colombians wearing white T-shirts marched in their homeland and abroad yesterday to demand the country's largest rebel group stop kidnapping people and release those it holds.
The idea of the protests against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, was conceived less than a month ago on the social networking website Facebook, and people in 165 cities around the world said they participated.
The protests were concentrated in Colombia and Latin American capitals, though there were smaller protests in other places including Spain, Sweden, Hungary, France, Italy, India, and Miami.
In Colombia's capital, the protest swelled, with long lines of people shouting "Freedom! Freedom!" marching along Bogota's main thoroughfare. Television channels suspended normal programming to broadcast marches around the country, and anchors wore white T-shirts symbolizing peace. In between reports, the channels aired videos of hostages in the FARC's camps in the jungle.
An estimated 4.8 million people turned out for 387 events across Colombia, according to police operations commander General Jose Riano.
"I hope the FARC is listening," said former hostage Clara Rojas, who took part in the march in the capital. She was freed last month after nearly six years in captivity.
Colombia's government says the FARC is holding more than 700 hostages, including three US military contractors and former French-Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, whom it is trying to swap for imprisoned rebels. Talks between the rebels and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez recently led to the release of two hostages, including Rojas.
The FARC have called the march an attempt to bolster the political fortunes of its enemy, President Alvaro Uribe.
"If the suffering of those in captivity has been unjustifiably prolonged . . . this has been because of the inhuman intransigence and worthless pride of President Uribe," rebel leaders said in a statement released Friday.
Uribe addressed a packed public square yesterday in the northeastern city of Valledupar.
"To our fellow countrymen who live abroad, and who today have united with the rest of their compatriots, we want to extend our gratitude," he said.
In neighboring Venezuela, more than 2,000 people wearing white T-shirts marched in Caracas. In Panama, hundreds of Colombians demonstrated, while some 400 people shouted anti-FARC slogans in Argentina. In Mexico City, about 200 people gathered in front of the Angel of Independence monument.
More than 10,000 people rallied in Madrid, Spain, according to a statement from the Colombian presidency.
Television images showed Colombians and Americans at rallies in Washington, New York, and Miami.
For weeks, invitations to the march flew through cyberspace, mainly among the young and relatively wealthy who use Facebook.
As momentum grew, so did criticism of the marches' narrow focus. Many relatives of hostages fear the protests could endanger their loved ones, while others argue the marches should denounce all violent groups.