BOGOTA, Colombia – Suspected right-wing paramilitary gunmen freed the family of a former Colombian senator and four other people early Tuesday but continued holding the politician, the army reported.
Masked gunmen abducted Jose Eduardo Gnecco (search), his wife, their three children, a niece and two of the children's friends from their sport utility vehicle Sunday as they traveled along a highway near the Caribbean coast, military authorities said.
Gen. Mario Montoya, the commander of the army's 1st Division, said the hostages were freed under pressure from Colombian troops about 35 miles from the Caribbean city of Santa Marta.
The niece and one of the children's friends, whose names were not provided, were slightly injured by flying metal fragments after the gunmen opened fire during the kidnapping, Montoya said.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
But President Alvaro Uribe's (search) official spokesman told reporters late Monday that two regional paramilitary commanders, Rodrigo Tovar, better known by his nom de guerre "Jorge 40," and Hernan Giraldo Serna, appeared to be responsible.
Gnecco, a member of an influential political family in northern Cesar state, was headed to Maracaibo in neighboring Venezuela for a vacation.
The kidnapping came just three days before the formal start of disarmament talks between the government and paramilitary commanders of the United Self-Defense Forces, or AUC, in a safe haven recently granted to the militia leaders in northwest Colombia. The talks are aimed at demobilizing at least 12,000 fighters by 2006.
Authorities officially suspended arrest warrants against the chieftains on June 15, provided they remained within the 230-square-mile zone located around the town of Santa Fe de Ralito.
However, Uribe's spokesman, Ricardo Galan, said that Tovar and Serna would now be excluded from the talks and that the president had ordered the army to hunt them down — even if they are holed up inside the safe zone.
"The government believes in and supports peace processes that are serious, not deceitful appearances that are a cover to commit crimes," Galan said in a toughly worded statement. "Peace processes and safe zones cannot become temporary refuges from which to continue committing crimes, nor can they give rise to impunity."
The abductions come as a deep embarrassment for Uribe, who has been struggling to fend off criticism for pressing on with the peace talks despite numerous paramilitary cease-fire violations.
The U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, William Wood, said in an interview published this week that the AUC appeared to be more interested in trafficking drugs than making peace.
"I am not certain that the paramilitaries' goal is political," Wood told the Semana newsmagazine. "They only have one program: narco-terrorism. And only one agenda: destruction."
The paramilitaries were started by wealthy ranchers in the 1980s to combat Marxist rebels. But they wound up waging a dirty war against the guerrillas and their suspected supporters, and have funded themselves through drug trafficking.
The Colombian government and the smaller of the country's two main rebel groups, the National Liberation Army, or ELN (search), are trying to find common ground for peace talks. But the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC (search), has all but ruled out negotiations.
About 3,500 people are killed every year in Colombia's war, now in its 40th year.