Colombia rescue mission for abducted Chinese

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Colombia launched a major military and police operation Thursday to try to rescue four Chinese oil workers abducted by suspected leftist guerrillas in a remote southern jungle region.

A major land and air operation was under way around the town of San Vicente del Caguan, a long-time stronghold of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas that government forces retook in 2002.

The Chinese employees -- three engineers and a translator working for the British oil company Emerald Energy -- were taken hostage on Wednesday, removed from their vehicle by seven guerrillas, thought to be FARC.

The kidnappers released the Colombian driver, who two hours later informed company officials and police.

"We are making a serious effort to try to generate pressure for the hostages to be released," top regional official Edilberto Ramon Endo told reporters.

Endo believed the abductions were part of a racketeering campaign by the guerrillas to try to shake down Emerald Energy for protection money.

Colombian army general Javier Florez told RCN radio in Bogota that the armed abductors were dressed in civilian clothes.

The FARC, which has been at war with the Colombian government since 1964, is the country's oldest and largest leftist group, with an estimated 8,000 combatants. Several other guerrilla groups, however, operate in the country.

Last year, 282 people were kidnapped in Colombia, a 32 percent increase compared to the previous year, according to official figures.

Criminals were responsible for most of the kidnappings -- 57 percent -- compared to 35 percent for leftist guerillas.

Earlier this year, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos warned foreign multinationals would be kicked out of the country if they paid ransoms to guerrillas or criminal gangs for protection or to ransom kidnapped workers.

That warning, in March, came after more than 20 employees of South American Exploration, a subcontractor of Canadian oil company Talisman Energy and Colombia's Ecopetrol, were freed by their kidnappers, with Santos noting there was talk among the freed hostages of a ransom of some $2.6 million.

© 2011 AFP

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