Colombian rebels free nine of 18 hostages
Bogota, Mar 15: Leftist rebels freed nine out of 18 employees of a mining services company who were kidnapped while prospecting for gold in western Colombia, government and army officials said.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, had kidnapped the group at gunpoint on Tuesday evening and marched them into the jungle near the town of Bete near Quibdo, the capital of Choco province, the army said.
''Initially 18 were taken. Nine of them have returned,'' Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told reporters yesterday.
All work for a private company called Logistical Services of Colombia. The firm could not be reached for comment and a police spokesman told Reuters he did not know if any of the hostages were foreigners.
''The (rebel) group said it will communicate with the company, which is based in Medellin. So we are waiting for that communication,'' army Colonel Carlos Pinto said.
The FARC is fighting a four-decade-old war against the state funded by kidnapping for ransom and the Andean country's multibillion-dollar cocaine trade.
Other rebel hostages include Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen taken by the FARC during her 2002 campaign for Colombia's presidency and three American defense contractors kidnapped in 2003 while on a mission to locate crops used to make cocaine.
Choco is a cocaine-producing area sandwiched between Panama to the north, a common destination for smugglers, and Valle del Cauca province to the south, home to Colombia's toughest drug cartel. Most people in Choco are descended from African slaves brought by the Spanish to work in local gold mines.
More than 40,000 people have been killed in Colombia's war since 1990, most of them civilians, the United Nations says, while over 3 million people have been forced from their homes.
But kidnapping and other crime is down under President Alvaro Uribe, who won a second term last year and remains popular for his US-backed crackdown on the FARC.