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Colombian Rebels Release 5 Tourists - 2003-12-22

Colombia's leftist rebels have freed five foreign tourists held hostage in the mountains of northern Colombia for more than three months.

The rebel National Liberation Army, the ELN, handed over the four Israelis and one Briton to a church-led commission on Monday in what they described as a humanitarian gesture. Reports say the handover - in the Sierra Nevada mountains - took place in a secret location that was arranged between the rebels and mediators.

A member of the commission said all five foreigners looked tired but appeared to be in good health despite some minor skin problems. They were later flown out of the area in helicopters.

No ransom was requested or paid.

The hostages were among eight foreign tourists taken captive September 12. One of the hostages, a British teenager, escaped shortly after being kidnapped. Two others - a German and a Spaniard - were released in November.

The ELN said it seized the hostages to raise awareness about the alleged hardship inflicted by outlawed rightist paramilitaries and the army on the mainly Indian inhabitants of the Sierra Nevada.

Colombia has the world's highest kidnapping rate. More than 3,000 people are abducted each year, mostly for ransom.