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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.

Rolin Wavre, the deputy Red Cross chief for Colombia, said all of them were in good health. One of the freed hostages was identified as a 76-year-old Italian, Giovanni Ferrazi.

The hostages were freed in a rural area of San Pablo, not far from the remote northern airstrip where the twin-engine Fokker 50, carrying 41 passengers and five crew, was forced to land after being commandeered Monday en route from the northeastern city of Bucaramanga to Bogota.

The freed hostages were quickly examined at a local hospital and then put on a helicopter headed for Bucaramanga. ``They didn’t say anything. They were quiet, and they were desperate to get out of here,″ Emilio Brito, the examining doctor at the hospital in San Pablo, told The Associated Press.

Wavre would not say which rebel group was responsible for the mass abduction, in which guerrillas spirited the passengers and crew away from the landing strip in boats on the Magdalena River, Colombia’s main waterway, and likely disappeared up a tributary.

President Andres Pastrana, who spent much of Tuesday in closed-door meetings with senior police and military officials, said in a communique that the government believed the National Liberation Army, the country’s No. 2 guerrilla band, was responsible.

Security forces sent to the airstrip in Vijagual, 220 miles north of Bogota, found an abandoned rebel camp but without signs of recent use.

The 5,000-member National Liberation Army, or ELN, is the most active rebel group in the region, which has seen fierce combat in recent months between guerrillas and their paramilitary rivals.

The kidnappers were thought to have headed with their quarry into the adjacent San Lucas range, an impenetrable mountainous region that rebels have traditionally used for hiding ransom kidnap victims.

Pastrana’s spokesman said 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 and an Italian lay Catholic worker. The U.S. Embassy said it was trying to confirm local media reports an American was on the plane.

The audacious abduction shows just how lawless Colombia has become after nearly four decades of armed conflict.

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.″

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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