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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Colombian rebels kidnap pilot, oil company workers

BOGOTA, Colombia, Aug 10 (Reuters) - Colombian left-wing rebels have kidnapped a helicopter pilot and two local workers from China's BGP service company as they carried out oil exploration work in a remote jungle area, the helicopter's operating company said on Thursday.

The men were snatched on Wednesday by the National Liberation Army, or ELN, Colombia's second-largest leftist rebel group, in Choco province, about 200 miles (320 km) north of Bogota, the company said.

"While they were carrying out oil exploration work in Choco's Alto Baudo area, Capt. Jose Ignacio Mora and two BGP officials were kidnapped for financial gain by an ELN command," Helicargo said in a statement.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who has vowed to battle rebels, has reduced violence and kidnapping linked to the country's four-decade conflict. But armed groups still roam rural areas often to protect illicit crops used in Colombia's cocaine trade.

The ELN, which has about 5,000 fighters, has been blamed for frequent kidnappings and attacks on oil pipelines and energy infrastructure. The ELN is participating in peace talks with the government.

Helicargo said the helicopter landed in the middle of the jungle where the guerrillas snatched the men. A rescue team found the abandoned aircraft after authorities received a ransom demand from the rebels.

Colombia once registered more than 3,000 kidnappings a year, but that figure has been slashed since Uribe was first elected in 2002. The government reported 758 kidnappings in 2005.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country's largest Marxist rebel group, still holds scores of police, politicians and three U.S. contract workers in jungle camps. The government and the FARC are deadlocked over a possible prisoner exchange to release kidnap victims.
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