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Colombian rebels suspend hostage release
June 17, 1999
CALI, Colombia (CNN) -- Marxist rebels said Thursday that they suspended the planned release of hostages from a domestic airliner hijacked over Colombia 67 days ago because of fighting in the area where the captives were set to be freed.
They blamed the suspension on an alleged clash between guerrillas and soldiers in the same region of northern Bolivar province that the government agreed to demilitarize to pave the way for the hostage handover.
Crack counterinsurgency troops wounded at least one National Liberation Army (ELN) fighter in the clash, which occurred at about midday on Thursday near the village of Monterrey, according to a regional ELN commander.
Colombian Army commander Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora Rangel denied that his men engaged in any combat in the demilitarized zone, saying troops suspended all operations in the area after dusk on Wednesday in strict compliance with government orders.
Twenty-four people remain in ELN hands from the April 12 hijack of an Avianca plane over northeast Colombia.
On Tuesday, the ELN scored a publicity coup with the release of 33 hostages from the mass abduction of worshippers in a Cali church on May 30.
With Tuesday's release, the ELN repeated demands that it be given control of a section of the country and insisted on the initiation of peace talks.
Colombia has granted talks with the country's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and has given FARC autonomy over a Switzerland-sized section of the country since November.
The government has so far refused to grant either concession to the ELN.
"It is clear that the government does not want a political solution," said ELN commander Lilana Becerra. "They want to destroy the insurgency through war."
The 5,000 member ELN, which was led by a defrocked Spanish priest until last year, seized nearly 160 people when its commandos swept down on La Maria church in Cali, carrying them off to a mountainous rain forest.
It still holds an estimated 34 captives from that incident.
World's highest kidnap rate
With the world's highest kidnapping rate and a rebellion that has taken 35,000 lives over the past decade, Colombian President Andres Pastrana is under enormous pressure to end South America's longest running civil war.
"Pastrana has a mandate to promote a peaceful solution for Colombia," said Jose Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch. "But there's an important part of the population that is becoming impatient."
Pastrana has repeatedly said he will not give in to what he calls blackmail from the ELN. His concessions to the FARC brought a major political crisis when Colombian Defense Minister Rodrigo Lloreda resigned in protest.
"There have been abuses against the civilian population, and (FARC) is working to strengthen its forces rather than to reach peace," Lloreda said.
Pastrana has said he will talk with the ELN if it frees the hostages it still holds from the Cali kidnapping.
But with more than 2,600 kidnappings in Colombia last year, many in the country are not waiting for a solution. Government reports have shown Colombians continue to leave their country in unprecedented numbers.
Correspondent Frida Ghitis and Reuters contributed to this report.
Colombian rebels release 33 hostages taken from church
Presidency of Colombia
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