Sun, Nov 02, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Colombian church seeks proof tourists still alive

AP , BOGOTA

Roman Catholic church leaders trying to obtain the release of seven foreign backpackers from rebel captivity said on Friday they want to see evidence the hostages are still alive.

"At this time we want to ask the members of the ELN to send proof of life or that they facilitate means of communication between the hostages and their families," the Reverend Dario Echeverri said in a telephone interview with reporters.

Echeverri and a fellow Roman Catholic prelate met on Thursday with a jailed leader of the National Liberation Army, known as the ELN, in an effort to secure freedom for the four Israelis, one Briton, one German and a Spaniard who were kidnapped on Sept. 12.

The talks were unsuccessful.

Government peace envoy Luis Carlos Restrepo told reporters the rebels should release the hostages, who were kidnapped from an archaeological site in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains, "without any type of spectacle."

"The government has offered all the conditions for the ELN to deliver all the hostages," Restrepo said. "We don't see why this should be held up," he said, adding: "The families of the hostages are waiting for them in their homes."

The Colombian government says the ELN should release the hostages in a group.

But Echeverri said the ELN wants to first free Spanish hostage Asier Huegun Echeverria, who is from the Basque region of Spain, and then release the rest of the captives later.

"The church commission is a facilitator and does not have the ability to change the will of the government and the ELN," the priest said.

Colombian Army troops were continuing to search for the hostages on the flanks of the snowcapped mountain range.

Meanwhile, the Colombian army clashed with some 350 fighters of Colombia's larger guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces Of Colombia, or FARC, killing 15 rebels, the army said on Friday.

The battle took place late Thursday 75km northeast of Bogota when the army mounted a surprise attack on a rebel camp.

Among the dead was Marco Urelio Rodriguez Buendia, a regional guerrilla leader with around 1,500 fighters under his command, the army said. He is thought to be behind numerous attacks in the capital.

The nation's four-decade civil war pits two leftist rebel groups against right-wing militias and government forces, killing about 3,500 people each year.

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