Wed, Nov 26, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Colombian rebel group frees two hostages

AP , VALLEDUPAR, COLOMBIA

German hostage Reinhilt Weigel, left, holding a weapon, and Spaniard Asier Huegun, center, pose with rebels of the National Liberation Army (ELN) as they are freed in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia, on Monday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Colombian rebels freed two Euro-pean hostages, handing them over to a humanitarian commission that whisked them by helicopter away from the mountains where they had spent 74 days in captivity.

But there was a tragic outcome in another kidnapping case on Monday with the army saying they recovered a body believed to be that of Japanese businessman Chikao Muramatsu.

Muramatsu, a executive with the Japanese auto parts maker Yazaki Ciemel, was abducted three years ago by common criminals and later believed turned over to Colombia's largest rebel army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

During their release in the jungle, the two Europeans smiled and stood for photos with their captors -- members of Colombia's smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN.

One hostage, Reinhilt Weigel of Germany, posed with an AK-47 automatic rifle under her arm, next to rebels wearing bandanas over their faces.

A Catholic church official said he believed the five other kidnapped backpackers could be released before Christmas.

Weigel and Asier Huegen Echeverria, of Spain, were flown by helicopter from the Sierra Nevada mountains where they were handed over to the town of Valledupar.

Echeverria, in a red T-shirt, was heavily bearded, and a smiling Weigel appeared gaunt in a blue tank top and jeans as they emerged from the helicopter, speaking on cell phones. They did not speak to reporters before taking off on a plane for a military base in Bogota.

A government human rights ombudsman said many people will be angered by the photo of Weigel holding an assault rifle.

"Another danger has opened up," Dario Mejia, secretary-general of the government's human rights office, said from Bogota.

"I think it would be best if she left [Colombia]," Mejia said.

The rebels' right-wing paramilitary foes have killed suspected guerrilla supporters and sympathizers. Mejia said he wanted to know whether Weigel was forced to pose for the picture.

The Colombian government's human rights ombudsman, Volmar Perez, said the freed captives were in good shape, even though they had endured hunger and primitive conditions in the wilderness.

Camouflaged gunmen of the leftist ELN abducted Weigel and Echeverria -- along with two Britons and four Israelis -- on Sept. 12 from the Lost City archaeological ruins in the mountains, which rise up from the Caribbean coast in northern Colombia.

One of the hostages, British teenager Matthew Scott, escaped days later by hurling himself down a precipice.

The two freed hostages said they were not mistreated by the rebels, according to Perez.

The ELN said it kidnapped the eight foreign backpackers to raise awareness about the alleged hardship inflicted by outlawed right-wing paramilitary factions and the army on the mainly Indian inhabitants of the Sierra Nevada.

Meanwhile, an army patrol found believed to be that of Muramatsu after hearing several shots fired near the town of San Juan de Rioseco, 60km west of Bogota, said General Carlos Alberto Ospina, the armed forces commander.

The body was dressed in camouflage fatigues and had several bullet marks, he said.

Common criminals disguised as police officers seized Muramatsu from the streets of Bogota in February 2001.

He was later sold to the FARC, which reportedly demanded a US$25 million ransom for his release.

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