Bogota: Millions of Colombians brought the country to a near standstill in nationwide protests to demand that armed groups release thousands of hostages whom they have been holding.
Demonstrators wore white shirts and waved white handkerchiefs to show their unity in demanding an end to the conflict that has torn the South American nation apart for the past four decades.
At midday on 5July, a cacophony of car horns, church bells and whistles resonated in major cities as Colombians turned out en masse for the protest called after 11 hostages held by leftist rebels were killed last month.
Demonstrators demanded “freedom without conditions now” for the more than 3,000 people held hostage by leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups and criminals across the Andean nation.
Families of hostages, non-governmental groups and the Roman Catholic Church organized the protest after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a Marxist guerrilla group known as FARC, said 11 provincial lawmakers it had held hostage were killed in a raid by government soldiers -- though the government has said the incident never happened.
The protest was also against the government for alleged heavy-handed attacks on the rebel groups. “Society is divided between those who want a humanitarian exchange, even demand an exchange, and those who believe this path is not possible,” said political scientist Fernando Giraldo.
The government, which has been battling the FARC insurgency, lawless right-wing paramilitaries, and powerful cocaine trafficking organizations for decades, says FARC executed the lawmakers, who had been held hostage since 2002.
The protests came weeks after President Alvaro Uribe unilaterally released 150 jailed rebels in hopes FARC would reciprocate by freeing Betancourt and the others. Betancourt, held by FARC since 2002, has become a cause celebre in Europe and Uribe came under strong pressure from France, Spain and Switzerland to conduct a prisoner swap.
The discovery of links between members of his government and the paramilitaries has undermined the effort. The protests came on the same day that FARC released a Colombian geologist, Juan Carlos Posada, who had been kidnapped in the eastern province of Choco in March, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.