Rebels Kill Church Minister in Colombia

Marxist rebels shot and killed a Catholic priest who disappeared earlier this month on a pastoral mission in jungle region of northwest Colombia, church officials said Friday.

Bishop Alonso Llano told reporters that guerrillas belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) said they shot 45-year-old Javier Francisco Montoya and "will not give us his body because they buried him." No explanation was given for the slaying, and it wasn't known exactly when it took place.

As reported by Reuters, the FARC, locked in a battle against the state as well as far-right paramilitary groups, sometimes sees religious authorities as a challenge to its ability to govern areas it controls. Over the last decade, about 60 priests, seminary students, bishops and missionaries have fallen victim to Colombia's 40-guerrilla war. In March of 2002, authorities say the FARC killed the archbishop of Cali--a case that drew wide attention.

But the rebels nonetheless maintain respectful contact with the church hierarchy in the overwhelmingly Catholic country, Reuters reported. Sources say the church has played an active role in mediation efforst during Colombia's war. Currently, the church is assisting negotiations between the government and the FARC over a possible exchange of prisoners including three Americans held in rebel jungle camps.

Meanwhile, Llano told the Associated Press that the church is trying to recover Montoya's remains from the remote part of Choco state so that his family could hold a funeral in his home city of Medellin.