Colombia protesters release kidnapped police officers and oil workers

Dozens of kidnapped police officers and oil workers in Colombia have been released after they were taken hostage by protesters who raided an oilfield demanding better road infrastructure, the government has said.

The announcement of the release was made by President Gustavo Petro on Friday evening.

Earlier on Friday, the country’s ministers of defence, the interior and transport were dispatched to San José de Caguán, in the southern Caquetá province, where 79 police officers and nine oilfield workers were taken hostage by protesters on Thursday, according to the government. It said that one police officer and one civilian were killed.

Locals have been protesting sporadically and blockading roads for 40 days at the oilfield, which is owned by Emerald Energy, a subsidiary of the huge Chinese chemicals group Sinochem, according to ACP, Colombia’s oil and gas association.

On Thursday, the protests escalated as installations at one oilfield were set ablaze while demonstrators clashed with police. Videos circulating on social media appear to show unarmed police officers being driven away on a truck.

Petro, widely regarded as Colombia’s first leftist leader in modern times, had swiftly condemned the attack: “We have a popular movement, which by its exclusion and the influence of groups which want to destroy this government and subsume Colombia in war, has ended up murdering a young policeman.”

Since taking office in August, Petro has sought to swiftly move Colombia away from oil. A tax reform passed in December included the cancellation of a statute that allowed oil and coal companies to deduct royalty payments from their tax bills, and a windfall tax on profits. His mining minister has repeatedly promised to halt new exploration projects.

“We respectfully call on the national government to intervene, to restore public order and also to prosecute those responsible for this criminal act,” said Francisco José Lloreda, the president of ACP, in a statement on Thursday.

The country’s human rights ombudsman warned last month that the simmering protests could escalate if no solution was reached between the government, the company and the community.

Analysts say that Petro’s stance towards the extractive industry, alongside his promises of generous social programmes, may have emboldened local communities now rising up against multinationals.

“This is indicative of a bigger crisis that has been provoked largely by the president’s rhetoric,” said Sergio Guzmán, who runs Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consultancy. “People in rural areas are now taking it upon themselves to force companies to either keep their social commitments or force them to make new ones.”

Emerald Energy did not respond to requests for comment. According to its website, the company produces 8,000 barrels per day. Colombia nationally produces about 750,000 b/d, with oil and mining accounting for more than half of Colombia’s exports.

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