Colombian Priest Killed as he Left Church in Apparent Rebel Attack

A Catholic priest who was critical of leftist rebels was gunned down in front of a church where he had just performed mass, becoming the latest religious leader killed in Colombia's escalating civil war.

Hilario Arango's murder Thursday night in Cali, Colombia's third-largest city, comes as Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebels unleashed a wave of threats and violence against local leaders. In the past few weeks, the group known as the FARC has killed one mayor and demanded hundreds of other government employees and politicians around the country resign their posts or face retaliation.

In apparent violence from right-wing paramilitaries, a journalist, whose name appeared on a list of 100 people declared "military targets," was shot and killed Friday, news reports said.

Efrain Varela, 55, director of Meridiano-70 radio station, was shot several times on a highway in northwestern Arauca state where he lived, police said.

Varela's name was on a list of reporters and businessmen recently circulated in the state by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, Radionet reported.

The widespread threats from the FARC rebels have forced city governments to close their doors, and on Thursday prompted the national government to increase rewards for information leading to the capture of the group's leaders.

President Andres Pastrana announced during a nationally broadcast speech that the government would pay $2 million for information leading to the capture of the highest-ranking FARC commanders, and $1 million for battalion leaders. Previously, the government had offered a little more than $400,000 for the most important commanders.

Pastrana said the government was going to "seek out and punish the terrorists, one by one, wherever they are."

In a country where the annual minimum wage is approximately $1,675, the rewards are staggering.

"This is a tempting offer for peasants or even for guerrilla members," said Sabas Pretelt de la Vega, president of the national Merchant's Federation. He noted that many of the FARC leaders travel openly in the countryside they control, and even appear in villages occasionally.

"They can't do that anymore," he said.

In Cali, authorities were searching for the people who ordered the killing of Arango as he left church Thursday night. Police arrived at the church shortly after and shot a man dead. Cali police chief Gen. Luis Alfredo Rodriguez said police had shot the assassin, but relatives of the priest told Radionet that police killed Arango's nephew, who was standing nearby but was not involved in the attack.

Bishop Libardo Ramirez, of nearby Huila state, said Arango's murder "hurts our hearts." In April, a priest was shot and killed as he delivered communion in Huila state.

"With these deaths they want to sow panic," he said. "These violent people don't feel the pain of the communities, of the families, of the church itself that has done so much to try to reach peace."

National church leaders met with police Friday to discuss security measures for all priests but declined to give details.

Earlier this year, the archbishop of Cali was shot and killed after performing a mass wedding in a poor neighborhood. Archbishop Isaias Duarte was an outspoken critic of all sides in Colombia's conflict. Authorities are still investigating the motive for his murder.

Roughly 3,500 people are killed every year in Colombia's 38-year civil war, which pits the FARC and a smaller rebel group against government forces and an illegal right-wing paramilitary force. The violence has been increasing since February when the government ended peace talks with the FARC.