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Backpackers Kidnapped In Colombia

Thousands of troops scouring the jungles surrounding Colombia's tallest peak failed to find any trace of eight foreign backpackers kidnapped by suspected rebels.

The guerrillas broke into cabins where more than a dozen foreign backpackers slept at dawn Friday, took their valuables, then marched eight of the fittest tourists into the jungles surrounding the snowcapped Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta range.

The eight — four Israelis, two Britons, a German and a Spaniard — have not been heard from since they were seized by the insurgents believed to be from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in the archaeological ruins of Ciudad Perdida, or Lost City.

"We think they took them to the south, toward where the FARC has its hideouts," Army Gen. Leonel Gomez told The Associated Press on Monday.

Gomez said the FARC was likely responsible, but that other illegal armed groups had not been ruled out as suspects. The FARC and a smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army, have often carried out kidnappings during their four-decade war against the Colombian government.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe pledged to personally oversee the search operation, reportedly involving thousands of troops and Black Hawk helicopters. Periodic rainstorms and high altitudes were hampering the search, officials said.

An Israeli police expert reportedly joined the search teams as British consular officials arrived Monday in Santa Marta, a city on the Caribbean coast at the foot of the mountains 45 miles northwest of the Lost City.

Meanwhile, seven backpackers briefly detained along with the eight others by the rebels told The Associated Press they were likely allowed to go because they looked physically unfit — or simply lacked sturdy walking shoes.

"I was half asleep when I heard lots of voices. Then two men in camouflage burst in holding assault rifles," Mathijs Grote Beverborg, a 29-year-old Dutchman, said in an interview in Santa Marta.

"I pretended not to understand, but it was clear they wanted to take us away."

The rebels, who also wielded machetes, were firm but not overly hostile and were probably 18-20 years old, he said.

The guerrillas lined up all the foreigners outside in the rain and removed their money and valuables before carefully selecting their victims, Beverborg said. Sleeping bags and other heavy items were left behind.

Mark Tuite, a 33-year-old Australian, believes he was spared because he and his wife, Michelle, are both heavyset, with the rebels believing they would have had trouble keeping up in their forced march into captivity.

"They were very professional," Tuite said of the kidnappers.

The backpackers who were not abducted were tied together and locked in a room.

"They said they had booby-trapped the door with a grenade, but then our guide showed up and saw that the grenade was not activated," said Tuite, who spent two days hiking back to safety with the other backpackers who were not taken.

It was the biggest mass kidnapping of foreigners in Colombia since the now defunct M-19 guerrilla group took 14 ambassadors hostage at the Dominican Embassy in Bogota in 1980. The hostages were freed after two months of negotiations.

Authorities identified the hostages as Beni Daniel, 26, Orpaz Ohayon, 22, Ido Yosef Guy, 26, and Erez Altawil, 24 — all from Israel; Mark Henderson, 31, and Mathew Scott, 19, of Britain; and Asier Huegun Echeverria, 29, of San Sebastian, Spain. German officials refused to release the identity of the German hostage, but the travel agency that organized the tour to the Lost City identified him as Reinhel Welgel.

Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos, who was himself a hostage of the Medellin drug cartel in the early 1990s, questioned what the backpackers were doing in an area known to be rife with FARC rebels and their rightist paramilitary foes.

"These young people in such a complicated area," Santos told reporters in Bogota. "What the devil were they doing?"

Nevertheless, Santos said the government will "respond with energy until these people are freed."
By Margarita Martinez