Tue, Dec 23, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Kidnapped tourists begin arduous walk to freedom

AP , SANTA MARTA, COLOMBIA

After three months in captivity, four Israelis and a Briton have begun their final trek to freedom in the jungle-covered mountains of northern Colombia, a member of a humanitarian mission said on Sunday.

The five kidnapped backpackers were heading to an undisclosed location in the Sierra Nevada mountains where they are expected to be released by their rebel captors this week, said Cesar Velasquez, a member of the commission which has been negotiating the hostages' release.

The hostages left their latest base camp in the last few days and were expected to arrive at the meeting spot by yesterday, where commission members were to receive them.

Rebels from the National Liberation Army, or ELN, said last week they would release the five hostages before the end of the year. On Thursday, Defense Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe told local radio that the hundreds of Colombian troops in the region would ease offensive operations to permit the release.

"Things seem to be moving in the right direction," said Sharelle Henderson, the mother of captive British television producer Mark Henderson. "But until we are sure and we hear his voice, we are being very careful."

ELN gunmen seized Henderson and seven other foreign backpackers from jungle ruins in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains on Sept. 12. One of the hostages, a British teenager, escaped days later. Two other hostages -- a German and a Spaniard -- were released to the humanitarian commission in November.

Authorities have identified the remaining hostages as Beni Daniel, 26, Orpaz Ohayon, 22, Ido Yosef Guy, 26, and Erez Altawil, 24 -- all from Israel, and Henderson, 31, of Britain.

The ELN said it kidnapped the 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.

Colombia has the world's highest kidnapping rate, with some 3,000 abductions per year. Most are carried out by the nation's two leftist rebel groups -- the ELN and the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC.

On Sunday, President Alvaro Uribe, who is not related to the defense minister, announced that a former president would join another commission that is seeking a humanitarian accord with the FARC under which the government would free insurgents in jail in exchange for Colombians being held hostage.

Alfonso Lopez, who was president of Colombia from 1974 to 78, joins two Roman Catholic priests already working on the issue.

In a statement, Uribe said that any future agreement could not go against his security policies, and that rebels leaving jail must promise they "would not go back to committing crimes."

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