BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Suspected leftist Colombian rebels kidnapped some 92 workers from US oil firm Occidental Petroleum Corp. yesterday. But most were freed within hours, the Army said.
Gen. Carlos Lemos told local radio that the rebel group was still holding an unconfirmed number of employees of the American oil firm it had grabbed in the eastern jungle province of Arauca.
"Our information and understanding is that the vast majority of the people ... have already been released," said General Lemos, head of the Army's 18th brigade with responsibility for Arauca. "We don't have an exact number yet, but it is between 80 to 90 freed."
He did not mention the identity of the rebel group, which he had said in earlier radio comments was probably the Cuban-inspired National Liberation Army, or ELN - the second-largest leftist rebel group operating in the war-torn nation.
Army officials said the Occidental employees were abducted while cutting across the Colombian jungle in a convoy returning home from the Cano Limon oil field, located in the province of Arauca.
The ELN has carried out several mass kidnappings since 1999, including seizing 41 passengers aboard a plane and 160 worshippers at a church, to pressure the government and win ransom money to bankroll its decades-old war to impose a communist state.
"There are indications that it was the ELN, but there is no other information," Lemos told local radio.
Occidental officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
Occidental's Cano Limon pipeline has long been a target of the 5,000-member ELN, which says it bombs the duct to protest foreign corporate involvement in the nation's oil industry.
Occidental officials have said the ELN has escalated its bombing campaign, with 60 attacks in the first three months of 2001, compared with 100 in all of last year. The attacks have kept the pipeline out of operation for much of 2001.
The ELN has also voiced anger against the more than $1 billion in mainly US military aid to President Andres Pastrana's "Plan Colombia" offensive on cocaine - another key income source for rebels and far-right paramilitary forces.
Earlier this month, the ELN announced that its peace talks with the government were in "crisis" over its distrust of the Army and its suspected collusion with paramilitary forces.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor