Some 200 hostages released in Colombia

BOGOTA, Colombia, AP

Paramilitary fighters freed some 200 plantation workers, two days after seizing them in a town in Colombia’s eastern plains, officials said Thursday.

Chief Prosecutor Alfonso Gomez said the motive for the mass abduction was still unclear, but “apparently it was a demonstration of force by the paramilitaries.”

The workers were freed early Thursday outside the town of Carupana, about four hours by road from where they were kidnapped Tuesday in Villanueva, in Casanare State.

“We were treated well. They just brought us in for an informative chat,” Alejandro Sarmiento, one of the freed captives, told Colombia’s Caracol Radio after being released.

Authorities have attributed the mass abduction — Colombia’s largest — to the landowner backed United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, a militia organization battling leftist guerrillas for territory and power in a 37-year armed conflict.

There was no immediate comment from the AUC on the release of the hostages.

However, a statement that appeared to be from the paramilitary group was faxed late Wednesday to a television station. It claimed responsibility for the abductions — calling them a response to attempts by guerrillas to infiltrate the area and seize control of its lucrative palm oil producing plantations.

The statement was written on letterhead of a unit of the AUC. It indicated that most of the hostages taken Tuesday would be freed.

But it said 26 hostages would remain captive until they explain “certain behavior.” The statement was signed by “Commander HK,” the nickname of a paramilitary commander authorities say escaped from prison.

The AUC did not say why it had decided to release all of the hostages.

The AUC has previously kidnapped villagers, human rights workers and politicians, but never such a large group at once.

Last month, leftist rebels kidnapped 34 oil workers in neighboring Arauca State. They were freed three days later.

Colombia’s previous biggest kidnapping was in June 1999, when leftist rebels of the National Liberation Army kidnapped 150 people from a church from Colombia’s third-biggest city, Cali. Many were freed within days, and the rest gained their freedom within months.