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Colombia president replaces foreign minister amid scandal

Paramilitaries, establishment tied

Maria Consuelo Araujo resigned as Colombia's foreign minister yesterday. Maria Consuelo Araujo resigned as Colombia's foreign minister yesterday.

BOGOTA -- Colombia's president quickly named a new foreign minister yesterday , hours after Maria Consuelo Araujo resigned amid a growing scandal linking the political establishment and far-right paramilitaries.

President Alvaro Uribe appointed Fernando Araujo, who escaped from six-year rebel captivity just six weeks ago, to the Cabinet post. The two Araujos are not related.

"The president of the republic informs his compatriots that he has designated as foreign minister Fernando Araujo Perdomo," said a statement by the presidency.

Fernando Araujo, 51, escaped after six years as a hostage on Dec. 31 in the middle of a military attack on the guerrilla camp where he was held. He wandered for five days before finding help.

As foreign minister, one of his main jobs will be to support the president's policy of military rescues to free thousands of Colombians, and three US defense contractors, held hostage. But Fernando Araujo previously has voiced opposition to military rescues, claiming they jeopardize the hostages' lives.

Maria Consuelo Araujo announced her resignation four days after her brother, a senator, was jailed on charges of colluding with the paramilitaries and the kidnapping of a potential political rival.

The Supreme Court also recommended that federal prosecutors investigate her father, a former provincial governor, federal lawmaker and agriculture minister, in the kidnapping case.

"I clearly see the need for the judicial process to be free of interference, and my certainty in the innocence of my father and my brother obliges me to have the freedom to stand by them and support them," she said in her resignation statement, which she read at a brief news conference.

Her brother, Senator Alvaro Araujo, was one of five politicians arrested Thursday, bringing to eight the number of federal lawmakers jailed for allegedly backing and benefiting at the ballot box from brutal intimidation by the militias, which are responsible for some of the worst massacres in Colombia's five-decade civil conflict and much of its cocaine trade.

Uribe had initially stuck by Maria Consuelo Araujo, whom he named foreign minister six months ago, and she had said Friday that she would stay in the job. But concerns about Colombia's international image being tainted by her family's alleged close ties with paramilitaries -- her cousin, governor of her home state of Cesar, is also under investigation -- made her continuance in the post untenable.

The foreign minister's husband is an Associated Press photographer.

In the growing scandal, more than 60 federal and regional politicians -- almost all from the Caribbean coast -- are being questioned by the Supreme Court. The opposition is calling for early congressional elections, claiming the infiltration by the paramilitaries is so great that the legislative body has lost credibility.

All of the arrested are close political allies of Uribe, who despite the scandal remains immensely popular for having tamed violence in Colombia's major cities and highways since he was first elected in 2002.

The paramilitary bosses surrendered last year under a government peace deal that promises reduced sentences in exchange for confessing crimes and surrendering ill-gotten gains. More than 31,000 fighters laid down their weapons, although new groups have formed.