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Colombia Fighters Release Hostages

Rightist paramilitary fighters on Thursday released some 200 plantation workers they kidnapped in Colombia, chief prosecutor Alfonso Gomez said.

Gomez said the motive for the mass abduction was still unclear, but "apparently it was a demonstration of force by the paramilitaries."

Officials called it the largest mass kidnapping ever in Colombia.

The workers were freed early Thursday outside the town of Carupana, about four hours by road from where they were kidnapped Tuesday in Villanueva, in Casanare State.

"They released us all. They treated us well. They held us — because they said they wanted to talk to us," said Alejandro Sarmiento, one of the freed captives.

Authorities have attributed the mass abduction — Colombia's largest — to the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, a militia organization battling leftist guerrillas for territory and power in a 37-year armed conflict.

A statement that appeared to be from the paramilitaries claimed responsibility for the abductions in Casanare State — calling them a response to attempts by guerrillas to infiltrate the area and seize control of its lucrative palm oil-producing plantations.

The statement, faxed late Wednesday to a television station, was written on letterhead of a unit of the rightist United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC.

The workers were seized as they left their jobs in the Villanueva area, 80 miles east of the capital, Bogota, Tapias said. About 200 family members, frantic with worry, gathered in front of the Villanueva town hall on Wednesday.

“This collective kidnapping has characteristics such as we have never seen before in this country,” Tapias said in a radio address.

Casanare Gov. William Perez Espinel said 207 people were reported missing. Prosecutors put the number of hostages at 202, and the military at 190.

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. The State Department recently included the 8,000-member AUC on a list of terrorist organizations, citing increased kidnappings.

Fighters from AUC, 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.

Last month, leftist rebels kidnapped 34 oil workers in neighboring Arauca State. 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 were freed within days, and the rest gained their freedom within months.

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