A massive search for seven foreign backpackers being held captive by leftist rebels in northern Colombia will continue, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe vowed today.
Colombia’s peace commissioner said last week he was in contact with a commander of the rebel group holding the hostages and that he was hopeful they would soon be freed.
Until that happens, however, Uribe said the army will continue searching for the four Israelis – a Briton, a German and a Spaniard -in the dense jungles of the Sierra Nevadas, which soar up from Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
“The decision is to continue the military operation,” Uribe said. “We will only suspend this operation when we can replace the troops with a mountain battalion that we are going to install next year.”
Uribe said the search has been complicated due to the difficult terrain of the Sierra Nevadas and the fact that the rebels have controlled the region for many years.
The National Liberation Army, or ELN, seized the backpackers from archaeological ruins in the Sierra Nevadas more than two months ago. An eighth hostage, a British teenager, escaped soon after the kidnapping.
Last month, the rebels said they wanted to free the foreigners one-by-one to a delegation of United Nations and Roman Catholic Church officials.
Uribe objected, however, accusing the guerrillas of trying to turn the abduction into “an international show” and insisting they be released all at the same time.
The mother of one of the Israeli hostages – 22-year-old Orpaz Ohayon – told Uribe she supported the way he was dealing with the mass kidnapping in a brief meeting on Sunday night, captured by Caracol Television.
“We are with you, all the Colombian people are with you,” Tami Ohayon said she told the president, who she approached as he was leaving a hospital in Bogota where he visited victims of a Saturday night grenade attack in the capital.