BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) – The smaller of Colombia’s two main leftist rebel groups kidnapped a Catholic bishop but planned to set him free bearing a political message for the government, officials said Monday.

Misael Vacca Ramirez, the Bishop of Yopal, was traveling with two other priests and a local mayor in the eastern Casanare region Saturday when they were stopped by members of the National Liberation Army, or ELN, said Monsignor Fabian Marulanda, secretary-general of the Bishop’s Conference.

The rebels held them overnight near the town of Morcote, 220 miles northeast of Bogota, before freeing the two priests and the mayor. They wouldn’t release Vacca Ramirez, 48, however, and said he would be freed unharmed at a later date with a message.

“We were detained on Saturday by men in uniform who said they were from the ELN,” the mayor of Nunchia, Jose del Carmen Galvis, told local radio. “They told us to wait because they needed (to talk to) the bishop, and on Sunday morning, two others came and carried him up into the mountains.”

Vacca Ramirez had been involved in peace efforts between the government, rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups battling for control of the oil-rich Casanare and Boyaca regions when he was abducted, officials said.

Marulanda condemned the kidnapping.

“We are hoping it won’t last long,” he said. “But we request and require that Monsignor Misael’s life is respected.”

Interior Minister Sabas Pretelt said troops in the region have been searching for signs of the kidnappers.

“We are very concerned by the news, but so far the search hasn’t yielded results,” Pretelt told reporters.

A senior jailed ELN commander, Francisco Galan, told The Associated Press that he didn’t know if his group was responsible for the abduction. He was trying to contact rebel leaders in their jungle hideouts.

Galan acts an intermediary between the government and the ELN’s high command and is permitted to speak with commanders via radio from his jail cell.

The ELN has been trying to find common ground recently for peace talks with the government. It is one of two Colombian rebel groups that have led a 40-year-old campaign to topple the government and establish a Marxist-style state.

The ELN’s high command sent an open letter to the president of Colombia’s Senate on Monday that made no mention of Vacca Ramirez’s kidnapping but urged lawmakers to play a greater role in an eventual peace process.

The group reiterated its three demands for holding peace talks: an accord limiting the use of land mines, the release from jail of all ELN prisoners and a bilateral cease-fire.

“Today we still don’t have a concrete response (from the government) to the three points,” the communique said. “The ELN’s commitment to peace is irrevocable.”

President Alvaro Uribe has said he is ready to suspend military operations against the ELN if the group first declares a cessation of hostilities. He has not publicly commented, however, on the demand for the release of prisoners.

The hard-line Uribe is keen to reach a peace deal with the ELN. The government’s bitter fighting against the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, makes peace talks with that group unlikely, at least for now.

The Catholic church is deeply involved in peace efforts in Colombia, often putting the lives of clergymen at risk as one group or another sees them as being to close to an enemy. Over the past 20 years, an archbishop, a bishop, at least 50 priests and three nuns have been murdered. Dozens of others have been kidnapped.

The ELN was blamed for the 1989 kidnap-murder of the Bishop of Arauca, Jesus Emilio Jaramillo, in the same region where Vacca Ramirez was taken.

Colombia’s conflict claims an estimated 3,500 lives every year.

AP-ES-07-26-04 1259EDT



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