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Colombian Rebels Free TV Crew

Times Staff Writer

Guerrillas on Tuesday freed a five-person television crew kidnapped last weekend in the same area of northeastern Colombia where a reporter and photographer on assignment for the Los Angeles Times are being held.

The members of the crew, who were working for Colombia’s RCN network, were seized Sunday by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The news team had gone to Arauca province to cover the kidnapping of freelance reporter Ruth Morris and freelance photographer Scott Dalton.

The network said it lost touch with the five shortly after they informed their bosses that they were going to cover a car bombing in the town of Tame that killed six soldiers Sunday. The network gave no details of the crew’s condition, their release or their treatment by the rebels.

The kidnappings and the Sunday car bombing, one of four in the last month, are part of the increasing violence in Arauca, a focal point of President Alvaro Uribe’s hard-line policies toward the rebels.

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The province, which is rich in oil deposits and contains the starting point of a major oil pipeline, has had to contend for years with the National Liberation Army. That rebel group, known as the ELN, is an entrenched force numbering about 5,000. It has used kidnapping and extortion of farmers and oil companies to gain wealth and influence.

Morris, 35, and Dalton, 34, were seized at an ELN roadblock between the towns of Saravena and Tame on Jan. 21. Rebel commander Antonio Garcia told a radio interviewer Tuesday that the journalists would be released “in a few days,” while another ELN communique used a harsher tone, saying they would not be released as long as the Colombian army’s “indiscriminate bombings and killings” continue.

Morris made a brief statement Monday over rebel-controlled Radio Liberty to wish her father a happy birthday.

“We are in good health, but we are very worried. That’s all for now,” she said.

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In recent years, the FARC -- which may have as many as 18,000 members nationwide -- has also made inroads in Arauca, a region known for the extortion of money from oil interests and from those who grow and transport coca, the base material of cocaine. Paramilitary groups have also moved into the region, adding to the explosive mix.

Earlier this month, the U.S. government announced that it was deploying about 70 troops to the region skirting the Venezuelan border to help train Colombian army units protecting the oil pipeline. The U.S. government says the soldiers will not engage in combat. The pipeline transports oil produced by Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. to Caribbean ports.

Occidental, which developed the Arauca oil fields, says it does not pay extortion to the rebels, but observers say that contractors who work for the company routinely pay protection money.

Uribe has deployed up to 1,000 additional soldiers and police in Arauca since taking office in August. The forces have made dozens of arrests, initiated searches and confiscated quantities of arms and explosives. The measures helped reduce rebel bombings of the pipeline from 170 in 2001 to 40 last year.

But the measures have also led the guerrillas to step up their counterattacks on government forces, evidenced by the four car bombings in the last month, to protect the rebels’ lucrative extortion and kidnapping franchise, said military analyst Alfredo Rangel of Bogota.

The ELN and the FARC have made a “practical alliance” to resist the government offensive, Rangel said. Two security guards were killed and 11 wounded when rebels commandeered a bus full of oil field employees last month and set off a bomb beneath it.

“It’s too early to say if Uribe will be successful in hurting the rebels, but it’s clear that the guerrillas are trying to discredit him with the new wave of violence,” Rangel said.

Uribe has financed his anti-guerrilla campaign with $250 million in U.S. military aid and $800 million raised last year by a one-time wealth tax on Colombian citizens.

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Much of the added funds now underwrite security measures in parts of Arauca designated as “zones of consolidation and rehabilitation.”

The increased tax revenues should become permanent once a tax package passed by the legislature is implemented this year. It could generate as much as $2 billion annually. With that money, Uribe plans to increase uniformed military and police personnel nationwide from 210,000 in 2002 to 245,000 this year.


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