16 May 2000 (Newsroom) -- An Australian Protestant missionary was kidnapped on Sunday by a gang of armed men on Colombia's north coast, according to news reports. Edward Walter Smith, 51, was abducted from a church in the village of Canito along with three local men. The three men were released unharmed later on Sunday.
Colombian authorities are investigating whether Smith is being held by the country's largest rebel band, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The leftist group finances its war against the Colombian government through ransom and extortion.
No ransom demands have been made, but Smith was allowed to speak with family members by telephone on Tuesday, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). The missionary, who was abducted while attending a church service with his family, indicated that he was unharmed, an Australian government spokesman said.
"We don't know who was responsible for the kidnapping or the exact motive for it," said Matt Francis of the Department of Foreign Affairs in an ABC interview. "We do know more generally that kidnapping for ransom amounts is a fairly serious and widespread problem in Colombia, particularly in rural areas."
More than 1,000 kidnappings were reported in Colombia last year. Many Catholic and Protestant clergy have been killed or kidnapped by forces on both sides of the conflict. Last August, a Protestant pastor reported that more than 24 evangelical Protestant pastors had been killed in the first half of 1999 and up to 300 churches had been closed.
The Colombian government suspects that FARC is responsible for the kidnapping of three Protestant missionaries from Florida-based New Tribes Mission who have been missing for more than seven years.
Smith has been working in the area for 16 years with a small Protestant movement known in Australia as the Christian Brethren. The group is known in some countries, including the United States, as the Plymouth Brethren. Support for the missionary's work is coordinated through a service agency in Sydney called Australian Missionary Tidings. Smith, his wife and 23-year-old daughter, live in the village of Sinclejo about an hour's drive from Canito.
Australian diplomats in the region are cooperating with Bogota authorities in the investigation.
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