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Rebels Admit Avianca Kidnappings

April 19, 1999

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Colombian rebels acknowledged on Sunday that they hijacked an Avianca airliner last week and kidnapped all of its occupants.

The National Liberation Army, or ELN, also accused the Colombian military of endangering the lives of 32 hostages by attacking rebel units near where the hostages are being held.

The admission by Colombia’s second-largest rebel group, in a statement faxed to a local television station, ended a nearly weeklong silence by the ELN, which had been widely suspected in the case. The group did not say what its demands were for the release of the hostages.

Last Monday, five armed rebels disguised as businessmen commandeered an Avianca twin-engine turboprop with 41 other passengers and crew aboard. They forced it to land on a remote jungle airstrip where hundreds of guerrillas hauled the occupants deep into rebel-held territory.

The rebel group released nine hostages _ most of them elderly and in poor health _ later in the week, but still holds 32 passengers and crew.

In the statement, the rebel group said it carried out the kidnappings in an effort to pressure the government for concessions in peace talks and to counter a belief that the ELN has been all-but-defeated militarily.

``Any part of the national territory is vulnerable, as this operation demonstrated,″ the group’s ruling junta said in a fax.

The government has said it will not attempt a rescue operation to free the hostages, however the army reported heavy clashes with ELN units last week in the general vicinity of where the hostages were thought to be held.

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