190 hostages seized in Colombia’s biggest mass kidnapping
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) – Kidnappers on Wednesday were holding some 190 captives, snatched while returning from work in a plantation in eastern Colombia, in the country’s biggest mass kidnapping, the armed forces chief said.
The workers were seized Tuesday as they walked home, rode buses and even bicycles in the Villanueva area, 80 miles east of the capital Bogota, Gen. Fernando Tapias said.
”This collective kidnapping has characteristics such as we have never seen before in this country,” Tapias said in a radio address. He did not say who was suspected in the kidnapping.
Earlier, Gen. Eduardo Santos, commander of the army’s 2nd Division, said members of a paramilitary militia were behind the kidnapping.
Colombia – torn by violence with left-wing rebels and right-wing paramilitaries – has the world’s highest kidnapping rate, with some 3,700 people abducted last year, according to police.
About 200 family members of the captives, frantic with worry, gathered in front of the Villanueva town hall on Wednesday.
For most of the day, army officers had said that most of the victims had been freed overnight and had returned home. Tapias had earlier said that all but 27 of the captives had returned home.
But the mayor of Villanueva, Hildebrando Leon, insisted that about 200 people – a quarter of them children – remained captive.
”The group that was kidnapped yesterday remains detained … and until this moment we have not confirmed any have been liberated,” Leon said in a television broadcast.
Hours later, after consulting with his generals, Tapias went on the radio and said 190 people were still being held.
The motive for the kidnapping was unclear, although there was speculation it was a forced recruitment drive by the paramilitaries.
The paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, backed by big landowners and with covert connections to the military, have been attacking leftist rebels – and massacring suspected rebel collaborators – throughout Colombia’s civil war, now in its 37th year.
The last mass abduction in Colombia occurred April 16 when leftist rebels kidnapped 34 oil workers in eastern Colombia. They were freed three days later.
The 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 hostages were freed within days, and the rest gained their freedom in following months.
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After a period of dry, warm weather, winter returns this week to Lake Tahoe.