Kidnapped backpackers begin trek to freedom

Five backpackers have begun their final trek to freedom in the jungle-covered mountains of northern Colombia after three months in captivity, a member of a humanitarian mission said today.

Five backpackers have begun their final trek to freedom in the jungle-covered mountains of northern Colombia after three months in captivity, a member of a humanitarian mission said today.

The five – four Israelis and one Briton – were heading to an undisclosed location in the Sierra Nevada mountains where they are expected to be released by their rebel captors this week, said Cesar Velasquez, a member of the commission which has been negotiating their release.

The hostages left their latest base camp in the last few days and were expected to arrive at the meeting spot by tomorrow, where commission members were to receive them.

Rebels from the National Liberation Army, or ELN, said last week they would release the five hostages before the end of the year. On Thursday, Defence Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe told local radio that hundreds of Colombian troops in the region would ease offensive operations to permit the release.

ELN gunmen seized eight foreign backpackers from jungle ruins in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains on September 12. One of the hostages, a British teenager, escaped days later. Two other hostages – a German and a Spaniard - were released to the humanitarian commission in November.

Authorities have identified the remaining hostages as Beni Daniel, 26, Orpaz Ohayon, 22, Ido Yosef Guy, 26, and Erez Altawil, 24 – all from Israel, and Mark Henderson, 31, of Britain.

The ELN said it kidnapped the foreign backpackers to raise awareness about the alleged hardship inflicted by outlawed right-wing paramilitary factions and the army on the mainly Indian inhabitants of the Sierra Nevada.

Colombia has the world’s highest kidnapping rate, with some 3,000 abductions per year. Most are carried out by the nation’s two leftist rebel groups – the ELN and the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC.

President Alvaro Uribe today announced that a former president would join another commission that is seeking a humanitarian accord with the FARC under which the government would free insurgents in jail in exchange for Colombians being held hostage.

Alfonso Lopez, who was president of Colombia from 1974-78, joins two Roman Catholic priests already working on the issue.

In a statement, Uribe said that any future agreement could not go against his security policies, and that rebels leaving jail must promise they “would not go back to committing crimes”.

The FARC rebels are holding dozens of political prisoners – including soldiers, police, politicians and three US military contractors – who they want to trade for guerrillas held in government jails.

The rebel group also kidnaps hundreds of ordinary Colombians a year to collect ransoms that help fund their 39-year fight against the government.

It was not clear whether all kidnap victims, or just the political prisoners, would be released as part of a future accord. Uribe also did not say how many of the hundreds of rebels currently in jail could potentially be released.

Relatives of kidnap victims welcomed the addition of the widely respected Lopez to the panel negotiating a prisoner exchange.

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