Ransom Deal In Ecuador

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Oil firms and an armed group that killed a foreign oil worker and holds seven others hostage in Ecuador's Amazon jungle have reached a ransom agreement, Ecuador's top military chief said Wednesday.

Admiral Miguel Saona, chief of the high military command, said in an interview on Gamavision television that the unidentified kidnappers won't kill another hostage since their employers agreed Tuesday to pay for their freedom.

"I understand that this group of criminals negotiated, and explained they won't execute anyone else. I understand that they reached an economic arrangement," said Saona, who did not reveal the amount of ransom that will be paid.

Unconfirmed media reports have said that the kidnappers warned they would kill another of the hostages if ransom was not paid by Feb. 15.

"The information that we have about this is not very broad because all negotiations are being conducted between the criminal group and the embassies or companies that employee the captives," said Saona.

Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Quito were not immediately available for comment.

Ten foreign oil workers, including five Americans, were kidnapped from the Amazon region in October. Two French technicians escaped a few days later, while four U.S. citizens, an Argentine, a Chilean and a New Zealander remain in the kidnappers' custody.

Ronald Clay Sander, a 54-year-old oil technician from Missouri, was shot and killed two weeks ago and left with a note demanding that his employer, the drilling firm Helmerich & Payne, pay ransom.

Sander's body was found wrapped in a sheet scrawled with the words in Spanish: "I am a gringo. For non-payment of ransom. HP company."

The other Americans are identified as David Bradley, of Casper, Wyoming, an oil field platform foreman for Helmerich & Payne; and Arnold Alford, Steve Derry and Jason Weber, all employees of the Oregon-based Erickson Air-Crane Co., and residents of Gold Hill, Oregon.

Family members of the remaining hostages pleaded with Helmerich & Payne and the other employers to pay up, fearing that more hostages could be killed. An oil industry source said the ransom was set at $80 million.

Authorities believe the kidnappers are members of the same criminal gang that held seven Canadians and an American for ransom for 100 days in late 1999. Alberta-based United Pipeline Systems has never confirmed reports that it paid $3.5 million for the release of its employees.

"We have received information in bits and pieces from the negotiators, but the information that we have at hand makes us think that it is a criminal group with approximately 25 people," said Saona.

He expressed concern that while paying off the group could save the hostages, it makes Ecuador increasingly vulnerable to kidnappings.

"The moment their rescue is paid it is extremely dangerous. Tomorrow, you or I or anyone else are targets to be kidnapped, and it's a serious problem," he said.

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