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Saturday, 24 August, 2002, 21:50 GMT 22:50 UK
Uribe oversees kidnap rescue efforts
Mother embraces son whose father and grandfather are among the abducted
The ELN have a fearsome reputation as kidnappers
Colombia's new president, Alvaro Uribe, has gone to a remote coastal province to oversee an operation to free more than 20 tourists being held hostage by leftist guerrillas.

The president arrived on a navy frigate to direct the search for the tourists, abducted by the National Liberation Army (ELN) last week.

Mr Uribe's direct involvement in the operation is widely seen as a sign that he is keen to make good on a key campaign pledge to crack down on the country's guerrillas.

But the BBC's Jeremy McDermott in Bogota says the president, inaugurated just this month, is taking a political gamble by associating himself so closely with an operation which stands little chance of success.

Showdown

Last weekend the Marxist ELN stopped a bus-load of tourists travelling through the northern coastal province of Choco and ordered 27 of them to march into the jungle.

Alvaro Uribe
Uribe took office on a tough security platform
The last time the ELN carried out a mass kidnapping on this scale was just before they opened peace talks with the government several years ago.

It is widely believed that the ELN, the second largest leftist movement in Colombia, wants to demonstrate that it is a major force that cannot be dismissed.

Kidnappings are not a new phenomenon in Colombia, where some 3,000 people are abducted each year by leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries looking to finance their operations.

But by travelling to the scene, Mr Uribe appears to be rising to the challenge posed by the guerrillas.

He made the trip just as his administration told the nation's highest court that rebels were planning devastating new attacks with sophisticated weapons.

In a statement to the High Court, the government said rebel groups like the ELN, and the larger FARC movement, were planning to attack the government, to destroy whole populations and definitively ruin the country.

The comments were part of a statement justifying last week's decision to assume special powers.

It is now up to the court to accept the government's argument or revoke those powers.

It is thought that the ELN kidnapping could well help to swing the decision in favour of the president.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jeremy McDermott
"Mr Uribe is taking an active role in matters of defence"

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