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Colombia: FARC guerrillas captured 23 Canada's Talisman oil workers

Colombia's FARC guerrillas

BOGOTA, Mar 08, 2011

Suspected FARC guerrillas have captured 23 Colombian oil contractors carrying out exploration work for Canada's Talisman Energy in a rare mass kidnapping, authorities said on Monday.

Colombia, Latin America's No. 4 oil producer, has recently enjoyed a boom in petroleum and mining investment as violence from its long war has subsided, but illegal armed groups remain a threat in remote areas where the state's presence is weak.

Vichada provincial governor, Juan Carlos Avila, said gunmen forced the contract workers out of the camp from where they were conducting work for Talisman ( TLM.TO ), a partner of state oil company Ecopetrol.

"They entered the camp and forced the 23 to go with them into the jungles," Avila told Caracol radio, saying that all those kidnapped were Colombian nationals.

The Colombian army said the gunmen appeared to belong a local unit of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Latin America's oldest surviving rebel insurgency, which is now at its weakest in decades.

A spokeswoman for Talisman in Canada could not immediately comment on the incident. The Canadian company recently finished the purchase of BP operations in Colombia with Ecopetrol.

The FARC and illegal cocaine-trafficking gangs operate in Vichada province in the oil-rich flatlands of eastern Colombia near the Venezuelan frontier.


Kidnappings have become rarer in Colombia as security has improved and the FARC has been battered by the loss of top commanders and desertions. But Monday's large-scale hostage-taking shows risks facing the oil and mining firms.

Companies are still targeted for extortion by armed groups and the FARC last year kidnapped five contractors near the frontier with Venezuela. Colombian troops rescued them four days later.

The rebels last month freed six hostage troops and local politicians as a humanitarian gesture. But they are still holding around 15 police and soldiers in secret jungle camps for political leverage.

The country's oil infrastructure has also recently been attacked. Last month the Cano Limon-Covenas pipeline was attacked and earlier the Transandino oil line was halted for a few days by a suspected rebel bomb.

Last month a coal rail line operated by the coal producer Cerrejon was also hit by a bomb in a second attack on the installation in a month.

Once written off as a failing state mired in drug violence, Colombia has enjoyed a sharp decline in bombings, kidnappings and attacks since 2002 when the government began a U.S.-backed security crackdown on armed groups.

Foreign direct investment grew more than five-fold as violence waned and, oil and mine companies moved into areas once considered off limits for exploration.

The FARC and cocaine-smuggling militias linked to former paramilitaries are still proving resilient in remote jungles, mountains and flatlands where the Colombian state has still to establish a strong foothold.

Factbox: Key facts about Colombia's FARC rebels

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, is at its weakest moment in decades after the deaths of top commanders and a string of desertions prompted by government bounties and improved military intelligence and training.

Aided by billions in U.S. funds, the government has taken the fight to the FARC. But rebels remain a potent force in some areas, helped in part by their involvement in the lucrative drug trade and alliances with other armed groups.

Following are some facts about the FARC, Colombia's biggest rebel army:

* Latin America's longest-running rebel insurgency, the FARC was established in 1964 as a communist-inspired peasant army fighting to reduce the gulf that still divides rich and poor in the South American state.

* The FARC was once a powerful force with more than 17,000 fighters capable of bombing cities and kidnapping almost at will and it controlled large swaths of the country. But former President Alvaro Uribe's U.S.-backed security drive weakened the rebels, sending them back into jungles and mountains, and violence has dropped sharply. There are now about 8,000 fighters.

* Among hostages once held by the FARC were French-Colombian former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. Defense Department contractors. They were rescued in 2008 by police and army agents posing as humanitarian workers. Rebels still hold about 15 captive soldiers and police officers for political gain. There also are an unknown number of hostages held for ransom.

* The FARC remain a force in some rural areas, mainly in southern jungles, where they have held their hostages in secret camps for as long as a decade. But they are still capable of urban operations. At the end of 2009, they kidnapped and killed Caqueta state Governor Luis Cuellar in a high-profile operation.

* The FARC said in 2008 its top commander and founder, Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, died of a heart attack. Second-in-command Raul Reyes was killed in a bombing raid on his camp inside Ecuador in the same year and another top commander was betrayed and shot by his bodyguard shortly afterward. In September last year top rebel military commander Mono Jojoy was killed in a bombing raid and ground assault on his camp. FARC deserters say the rebels are now constantly on the run from troops who improved mobility and intelligence.

* Attempts to broker hostage talks are stalled. In the past rebels have said they wanted the government to demilitarize an area the size of New York City in southern Colombia to facilitate hostage negotiations but authorities says that would allow the FARC to regroup. Santos says the guerrillas must cease hostilities and free hostages before any talks.

* Listed as a terrorist organization by U.S. and European officials, the FARC has used Colombia's cocaine trade to fund its operations. The conflict has been reduced in many regions to turf battles over cocaine-producing land involving the FARC, outlawed paramilitaries and other drug smuggling gangs. In some areas FARC form alliances with other armed groups. Several FARC leaders had hidden inside Venezuelan territory, Colombian and U.S. officials say. Chavez denied that charge. - Patrick Markey /Mon Mar 7, 2011 11:49pm EST

Note from the PW editor:

Just release Press TV Tue Mar 8, 2011 02:08PM GMT

Kidnapped Colombian oil workers freed

Twenty one of the 23 Colombian oil workers earlier kidnapped by suspected FARC rebels in a remote eastern jungle area have been released.

"We still don't know the details of how the releases took place, but pressure from army troops in the area led to the release," said Governor Juan Carlos Avila of Vichada department on Tuesday.

Colombian Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera also confirmed the release of 21 of the workers, adding that another hostage also managed to escape.

The employees, who worked for a sub-contractor for Canada's Talisman Energy in Vichada, were seized by Colombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

The attack took place on Monday at abundant coca crops -- the raw material for cocaine.

Avila told Radio Caracol that "three men burst into the camp" and forced the workers to go with them deeper into the jungle by canoes.

Colombia's military immediately dispatched troops to look for those kidnapped.

The suspected guerrilla action may have been to obtain a ransom or to prevent outside intrusion into their jungle stronghold.

In January, Talisman, along with state-run oil firm Ecopetrol, completed a planned purchase of the Colombian assets of BP PLC for $1.75 billion.

The mass kidnapping has been the first of its kind since President Juan Manuel Santos took office seven months ago.

Story by Patrick Markey from Reuters.Additional reporting by Nelson Bocanegra; Editing by Todd Eastham

Mon Mar 7, 2011 11:20pm EST



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