- The Washington Times - Monday, September 15, 2003

BOGOTA, Colombia — Thousands of troops backed by Black Hawk helicopters headed to the snowcapped mountains of northern Colombia yesterday to hunt for eight foreign tourists kidnapped by leftist rebels, authorities said.

The four Israelis, two Britons, a German and a Spaniard were taken late Friday near archaeological ruins high in the Sierra Nevada, about 465 miles north of the capital, said Gen. Luis Alfredo Rodriguez, head of Colombia’s police operations.

President Alvaro Uribe condemned the abductions and vowed to track down the perpetrators.

“The security forces have completely mobilized, including troops and helicopters, to resolve this problem,” Mr. Uribe told reporters Sunday.

The kidnappers are believed to be members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which is responsible for most of the 3,000 kidnappings that take place yearly in Colombia, Gen. Rodriguez said.

Thousands of security forces were readying for deployment in the Sierra Nevada, though thick jungle and high altitudes make search operations difficult, he said.

The British Embassy confirmed two British men were among those being held. Spokesman Alfonso Morales declined to reveal their names until their families had been notified. Consular staff were to travel to the region yesterday.

Israeli Ambassador Yair Recanati told local television that he had spoken to several of the hostages’ families, “who expressed their profound concern.” He said the captured four were on vacation in Colombia and had a keen interest in pre-Columbian Indian ruins.

The FARC kidnaps ordinary Colombians and foreigners for ransom and is holding three U.S. military contractors and dozens of Colombian politicians, police and soldiers, whom it wants to exchange for imprisoned rebels.

A senior government official said the rebels initially took the tourist group’s guide, but later released him. The eight were part of a larger group of 15 tourists that earlier had split in two. The others were all safe, the official added.

The mountains are covered in thick jungles and rise more than 19,000 feet above sea level. The tour group was headed to Ciudad Perdida (Lost City), built by an indigenous civilization centuries ago, several days’ hike from the nearest road, Gen. Rodriguez said.

FARC rebels, who have been waging a guerrilla war for 39 years, operate freely in the region, which is widely considered unsafe.

Cardinal Pedro Rubiano, the head of Colombia’s Roman Catholic Church, denounced the kidnapping as an affront to peace and justice. “It is as though the insurgents have slapped the country in the face,” he told RCN radio.

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