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Rebels Free Some Colombian Hostages

June 16, 1999

CALI, Colombia (AP) _ Seventeen days after kidnapping them during Mass, leftist rebels ceremoniously released 33 hostages in front of television cameras tonight, but kept at least 20 others captive.

The freed churchgoers were delivered to a 12-member commission of Colombian and international politicians including Venezuela’s ambassador and German lawmaker Bernd Schmidbauer.

Among those released by the National Liberation Army, or ELN, were three minors and the parish priest, the Rev. Humberto Cadavid.

``The Colombian state is being held hostage,″ he told reporters, because if the rebels can abduct an entire churchfull of people ``where is the security, where is the tranquility in Colombia. We’re living in fear.″

Visibly exhausted, wearing rain ponchos, black rubber boots and clothes dampened by the day’s heavy rains, the freed hostages carried plastic bags with their belongings out of the mountains as they were ushered single file into the hands of the receiving commission by camouflaged-uniformed guerrillas.

``It’s clear to the National Liberation Army that this government is not interested in a political solution,″ said the guerrilla commander who presided over the release in the hamlet El Cedro.

The commander, Liliana Becerra, wore a black ski mask, covering her face along with the rest of the guerrillas. She repeated the rebels’ demand that the government demilitarize four municipalities in the northern state of Bolivar.

The freed hostages were among some 160 people grabbed by rebels on May 30 in the La Maria church on Cali’s southern outskirts.

Lured into trucks by the guerrillas, who claimed to be soldiers investigating a bomb threat, most of those seized were freed later that day in mountains south of Cali as soldiers gave chase. Another five people were freed June 5.

In addition to those from the church kidnapping, the ELN still holds 24 people from its April 12 hijacking of a domestic Avianca airlines flight.

ELN leaders have complained that President Andres Pastrana, while initiating peace talks with the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have ignored their peace overtures.

The ELN’s abductions were widely considered publicity stunts by a 35-year-old insurgency comprised of some 5,000 fighters, but with little public support.

A former West German spy chief, Schmidbauer was the handler of a freelance agent named Werner Mauss. Mauss has close ties to the ELN and with his wife, Isabel, was arrested by Colombia’s government in 1996 for allegedly brokering the release of a German hostage held by the rebel band.

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