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Colombian Rebels Release 6 Hostages

April 14, 1999

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Leftist rebels who kidnapped an entire Avianca domestic flight released six hostages _ five elderly people and a baby _ to the International Red Cross on Tuesday.

``We don’t have their identities, but we know that they’re well,″ Rolin Wavre, the deputy Red Cross chief for Colombia, told The Associated Press.

The group, among 46 who had been abducted, was turned over in a rural area of San Pablo, not far from where the twin-engine Fokker 50 was forced to land after being commandeered Monday en route from the northeastern city of Bucaramanga to Bogota, said Wavre. The 40 others were still being held.

The Avianca twin-engine turboprop plane was commandeered Monday en route from the northeastern city of Bucaramanga to Bogota, the capital, an incident showing just how lawless Colombia has become after nearly four decades of armed conflict.

The plane was forced to land on a remote northern airstrip along the Magdalena River, Colombia’s main waterway.

By the time police reached the airstrip in Vijagual, 220 miles north of Bogota, all they found was an empty plane with its tires blown out. Pilots who flew over the area hours earlier saw passengers being spirited away onto wooden boats by people dressed in green fatigues.

President Andres Pastrana, who spent much of the day in closed-door meetings with senior police and military officials, announced in a communique that the goverment believed the National Liberation Army, the country’s No. 2 guerrilla band, ``could be″ responsible for the mass abduction.

No group has claimed responsibility. The ELN is the most active rebel group in a region that has seen fierce combat in recent months between guerrillas and their paramilitary rivals.

The government sent troops to try to cordon off a huge area of the San Lucas range, a mountainous rebel region where the kidnappers are thought to have headed with the passengers and crew.

A spokesman for Pastrana said Tuesday, however, that a rescue attempt was unlikely. ``I don’t see that as a possibility,″ Otto Gutierrez told Caracol radio.

No senior government officials were aboard the plane, whose passengers included an Ecuadorian nun, an Italian lay Catholic worker, an elderly couple in failing health and a 3-month-old baby. The U.S. Embassy said it was trying to confirm local media reports an American was on the plane.

Colombia’s weak central government has little or no control over vast areas that are dominated _ and terrorized _ by an assortment of increasingly brazen armed groups. Security at airports is notoriously lax. Drug trafficking has bred rampant corruption. And the rich and prominent protect themselves with phalanxes of bodyguards.

On Tuesday, fierce fighting was reported in a northwestern region where 43 soldiers were ambushed by guerrillas late Monday. At least 10 soldiers were killed and reinforcements were meeting heavy resistance, the army said.

A country of 40 million, Colombia has the world’s highest kidnapping rate, roughly 27,000 murders a year, including some 3,000 political killings. The civil conflict pits leftist guerrillas against right-wing paramilitary groups and government security forces.

More than 2,200 people were kidnapped last year alone, about half of them by ransom-seeking rebels who regularly mount roadblocks on major highways. Such abductions have become so common that many Colombians fly even on short domestic trips. Now it appears even the skies are not safe.

As the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, grew strong in recent years, the ELN _ long considered the FARC’s weak sister _ has been crippled by paramilitary incursions onto its territory and massacres against civilians said to support them.

It’s proposals have been shunned in preliminary peace talks with the government, and many believe the seizing of Flight 9463 may have been an ELN publicity stunt designed to earn respect.

``The ELN is discredited militarily and the government isn’t taking it seriously in negotiations,″ said Alejandro Reyes, a National University political scientist. ``If the ELN did this, it would appear an attempt to call attention to itself.″

Reyes said, however, that hijacking an airliner full of defenseless civilians is no way to try to gain legitimacy.

``It places them in the category of terrorists,″ he said.

Pastrana has rejected ELN demands that he withdraw troops from five towns in its traditional stronghold near Vijagual where peace talks might be held.

By contrast, Pastrana has demilitarized a southern region the size of Switzerland to make way for peace talks begun in January with the 15,000-member FARC. Those talks are deadlocked, however, and Pastrana will have to decide after a next scheduled meeting April 20 whether to extend the troop pullout.

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