Colombia rebels grab oil workers, free most

BOGOTA, Colombia, Reuters

Suspected leftist Colombian rebels kidnapped up to 92 workers from U.S. oil firm Occidental Petroleum Corp. but freed most of them hours later early on Tuesday, the army said.

Gen. Carlos Lemos told local radio that the rebel group was still holding an unconfirmed number of the employees of the U.S. oil firm it had grabbed in the eastern jungle province of Arauca. But he declined to specify the number of victims or their nationalities.

“Our information and understanding is that the vast majority of the people who were temporarily kidnapped in this terrorist act have already been released,” said Lemos, head of the army’s 18th brigade with responsibility for Arauca. “We don’t have an exact number yet, but it is between 80 to 90 freed.”

He did not mention the identity of the rebel group, which he had said in earlier radio comments was probably the Cuban-inspired National Liberation Army, or ELN — the second-largest leftist rebel group operating in the war-torn nation.

Police and army officials said the Occidental employees were abducted late on Monday night while cutting across the Colombian jungle in a convoy home from the Cano Limon oil field, located in the remote eastern province of Arauca.

The ELN has carried out several mass kidnappings since 1999, including seizing 41 passengers aboard a plane and 160 worshipers at a church, to pressure the government and win ransom money to bankroll its decades-old war to impose a communist state.

“There are indications that it was the ELN, but there is no other information,” Lemos told local radio.

Occidental officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

Occidental’s Cano Limon pipeline has long been a target of the 5,000-member ELN, which says it bombs the duct to protest foreign corporate involvement in the nation’s oil industry.

Occidental officials have said the ELN has escalated its bombing campaign, with 60 attacks in the first three months of 2001, compared with 100 in all of last year. The attacks have kept the pipeline out of operation for much of 2001.

The ELN has also voiced anger against the more than $1 billion in mainly U.S. military aid to President Andres Pastrana’s “Plan Colombia” offensive on cocaine – another key income source for rebels and far-right paramilitary forces.

Earlier this month, the ELN announced its peace talks with the government were in “crisis” over its distrust of the army and its suspected collusion with paramilitary forces.

Paramilitary groups stormed the ELN’s stronghold area in the Bolivar province on April 2, protesting government plans to temporarily cede a territory larger than the U.S. state of Rhode Island to the rebels to help jump-start formal peace talks.

Rebels said paramilitary groups launched their ongoing offensive suspiciously a day after the army withdrew from the region at the orders of Pastrana, who hoped the pullout would bring ELN leaders back to the negotiating table.

Two years ago, Pastrana granted a demilitarized enclave as big as Switzerland to initiate peace talks with the larger 17,000-member Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

As the talks drag on, the three-way war between the armed forces, the rebels and paramilitaries continues with civilians often becoming the victims of violence.

Police said FARC kidnapped 734 people in Colombia last year, while the ELN were the nation’s biggest kidnappers, with 867 abductions in a total of 3,162 people kidnapped in Colombia in 2000. The 37-year-old conflict has claimed nearly 40,000 — mainly civilian — lives in the past decade alone.