Colombian rebels say hostages will be released soon


Sun, Dec 21, 2003 - Page 6

Marxist Colombian rebels say they will release tomorrow or Tuesday four Israeli hikers and a British tourist they kidnapped in September near the jungle ruins of an ancient Indian city.

The 5,000-member National Liberation Army, known by its Spanish initials ELN, told local RCN radio on Friday it will free the hostages in what it called a "high risk" environment, dodging ongoing offensives by the Colombian military.

"The ELN has committed itself, and we're going to honor our word on the liberation," said top ELN commander Nicolas Rodriguez, also known by his rebel war name Gabino.

Israelis Benny Daniel, Ido Guy, Erez Altawil and Orpaz Ohayon and Briton Mark Henderson are being held hostage in Colombia's northern Sierra Nevada mountains.

Rodriguez, who has asked for a ceasefire to allow for the tourists' safe release, blasted "the government's adamant refusal to open a corridor that would allow for the liberation."

The rebels released two other hostages -- a Spaniard and a German -- late last month and had promised to free the remaining five before Christmas. The eighth member of the group, a 19-year-old Briton, made a daring escape shortly after his abduction near Colombia's "Lost City," Indian ruins perched high in the Sierra Nevada.

The tourists ignored warnings against travel into Colombia, far and away the most likely country in the world to be kidnapped.

Thousands of people are abducted here every year, most by Marxist rebels looking for ransom money to fund their four-decade-old guerrilla war.

But the abduction of these particular tourists seems to have been a publicity attempt for the rebel army, which asked for a Church-led commission to investigate human rights abuses in the Sierra Nevada as precondition to the hostages' release.

The ELN has since hailed the kidnapping as "one of the best political operations" in years.