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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Colombian rebels kidnap 18-member geology team

BOGOTA, March 14 (Reuters) - Leftist Colombian rebels have kidnapped 18 employees of a mining services company, including nine geologists, who were prospecting for gold in western Colombia, authorities said on Wednesday.

Members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, marched the group at gunpoint into the jungle on Tuesday evening near the town of Bete, a 20-minute river boat ride from Quibdo, the capital of Choco province, police said.

All 18 kidnap victims work for a private company called Logistical Services of Colombia. The firm could not immediately be reached for comment and a police spokesman told Reuters he did not know if any of them were non-Colombians.

"Starting early this morning the area is being patrolled by fighter and reconnaissance planes in support of army units searching for the 18 people," a statement from Colombia's Air Force said.

The FARC is fighting a four-decade-old war against the state funded by kidnapping for ransom and the Andean country's multibillion-dollar cocaine trade.

Other rebel hostages include Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen taken by the FARC during her 2002 campaign for Colombia's presidency and three American defense contractors kidnapped the next year while on a mission to locate crops used to make cocaine.

Choco is a cocaine-producing area sandwiched between Panama to the north, a common destination for smugglers, and Valle del Cauca province to the south, home to Colombia's toughest drug cartel. Most people in Choco are descended from African slaves brought by the Spanish to work in local gold mines.

More than 40,000 people have been killed in Colombia's war since 1990, most of them civilians, the United Nations says, while over 3 million people have been forced from their homes by violence.

But kidnapping and other violence has been cut under President Alvaro Uribe, who was reelected for a second term last year and remains popular for his U.S.-backed crackdown on the FARC.
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