Colombia: Governor's murder stirs criticism of Uribe, rebels

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* International community condemns "brutal" killing

* Murder challenges government security policy

* Leftist rebels keep silent on Cuellar abduction (Changes dateline, byline, adds details from Florencia)

By John Wilson Vizcaino

FLORENCIA, Colombia, Dec 23 (Reuters) - The murder of a Colombian governor by suspected Marxist rebels drew international condemnation on Wednesday and raised doubts about the success of the government's U.S.-backed security campaign.

In the biggest political kidnapping since President Alvaro Uribe came to power in 2002, Caqueta state Governor Luis Cuellar was snatched from his home by armed guerrillas on Monday.

The politician was found hours later with his throat slashed, authorities said, as government troops pursued the FARC commando group believed responsible for the abduction into the remote jungles in southern Colombia.

Hundreds gathered to mourn Cuellar in Caqueta's capital, Florencia, as his body was taken to the local legislature. They waived white flags and shouted "Why did you let them kill him?" to protest the state's failure to protect the politician.

The FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, has yet to release a statement on the kidnapping or murder.

Cuellar's abduction and the way he was killed shocked Colombians and brought back memories of the bloodier days of the long conflict when guerrilla bombings, kidnappings and massacres made daily headlines.

The kidnapping has stirred criticism of Uribe's war against the leftist guerrillas and cocaine traffickers after his military received billions in U.S. aid to finally stamp out Latin America's oldest surviving insurgency.

"An absurd sacrifice requires a drastic condemnation," El Tiempo, a top daily newspaper, said in an editorial. "It ratifies the level of degradation in the ranks of the insurgency."

Amnesty International, the U.S. embassy in Bogota, the United Nations and the European Union all condemned the "brutal" killing.

The kidnappers dressed in military uniforms blasted open the door of Cuellar's home, killed a police guard and dragged the governor into a waiting jeep. His body was found less than 24 hours later near the abandoned and burned-out vehicle.


A staunch Washington ally, Uribe has used billions of dollars in U.S. military aid to send troops out to retake areas once controlled by illegal armed groups. Violence has ebbed as the FARC was driven back into the remote jungles.

The rebels were also weakened by the killing of commanders and steady desertions. In a major defeat, the military last year tricked guerrillas into freeing three American contractors and a French-Colombian politician who were key rebel hostages.

But a recent report by a local research group said Uribe's so-called "Democratic Security" policy may have peaked last year after the successes against the FARC and traffickers and the disarming of paramilitaries who once fought the rebels.

The FARC has returned to guerrilla tactics - ambushes, surprise bombings and the use of landmines -- to avoid full confrontation with troops who are now equipped with better intelligence, helicopter mobility and training.

But with 2010 legislative and presidential elections approaching, analysts say the FARC will look to raise its military profile with more spectacular operations, as it has in the past before a vote.

"The government's security strategy appears to be losing effectiveness and further progress will be increasingly hard to come by," Patrick Esteruelas, Latin American director of the Eurasia Group risk consultancy, said in a report.

"A further ramp-up in attacks is likely as we approach the next round of congressional and presidential elections, respectively and the FARC look to make a visible splash to reinforce sagging rebel troop morale," he said.

The rebels are still holding 24 police and soldiers for political leverage, some of whom have been in captivity in jungle camps for more than a decade. Cuellar's murder will likely scuttle a FARC plan to free two hostages in what the rebels said would be a goodwill gesture.

(Writing and additional reporting by Patrick Markey in Bogota; Editing by Paul Simao)

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