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3 Americans Kidnapped in Colombia

March 1, 1999

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Three Americans were kidnapped by suspected leftist rebels in northeastern Colombia after researching an indigenous group on its reservation, authorities said Sunday.

The Americans were identified by the state security agency as Terence Freitas, Ingrid Inawatuk and Gay Laheenae. Colombia’s anti-kidnapping chief, Jose Alfredo Escobar, said the latter two were apparently members of the Sioux nation.

They were seized Thursday about 200 miles from Bogota, near the Venezuelan border, while on their way home from studying the U’wa culture.

No group claimed responsibility for the abduction, but several leftist rebel bands operate in the area where the three were seized, said Escobar.

Colombian authorities had no information on the Americans’ hometowns or affiliations, but an U’wa representative provided a New York phone number for Freitas which rang at the independent environmental group Rainforest Foundation. No one returned reporter’s calls Sunday.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman said he could not confirm the kidnappings for privacy reasons.

Colombia has the world’s highest kidnapping rate and foreigners are prized quarry because they tend to fetch the highest ransoms, typically several hundred thousand dollars each.

Regional U’wa representative Roberto Afanador, told The Associated Press that he was escorting the Americans to the airport when two gunmen in civilian clothes stopped the car and abducted the Americans.

Afanador said he was incensed at what he considered an affront to the U’wa, a fiercely proud nation of some 8,000 people.

The U’wa became internationally known when they won a legal battle against Occidental Petroleum in 1997 that prevented the Los Angeles-based company from drilling on U’wa territory. Tribal leaders had threatened mass suicide if drilling were to proceed.

``They came to study our culture, our territory,″ said Afanador. ``The indigenous authorities are very upset by this because our territory is not respected. We are humiliated. We are abused.″

Afanador said the U’wa suspect the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the country’s oldest and largest rebel group, in the kidnapping. He said the FARC frequently enters the U’Wa reserve without permission.

The FARC’s 34-year-old battle against the government has claimed more than 30,000 lives.

In addition to some 260 Colombians and the three Americans, kidnappers currently hold four Italians, two French, three Venezuelans and a Chilean hostage, according the anti-kidnapping czar’s office.