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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 December, 2003, 14:22 GMT
Mediators plea for Colombia truce
Relatives of Colombian kidnap victims stage a protest at  Bogota cathedral
Colombian families highlight the plight of their kidnapped relatives
Mediators trying to secure the release of foreign tourists held hostage by Colombian rebels have urged the government to halt military operations.

They said this would allow the handover of the five hostages who have been held for more than two months.

President Alvaro Uribe has rejected a rebel offer to create a neutral zone to release the hostages.

The four Israelis and one Briton are among more than 3,000 people kidnapped in Colombia each year.

Annan's peace call

A mediator with the National Conciliation Commission, Cesar Mauricio Velasquez, said they are asking the president to at least stop operations for a couple of hours to facilitate the handover.

Earlier this week the country's second-largest rebel group, National Liberation Army (ELN), said they would release before Christmas the five foreigners they have been holding in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains since September if the Colombian army guaranteed the safety of the operation.

The rebels freed a Spaniard and a German three weeks ago. A Briton managed to escape from the rebels.

The United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, has called on Colombia's main left-wing guerrilla groups to release their hostages, and resume negotiations towards ending violence.

Mr Annan said the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, and the ELN, should take steps to - as he put it - nurture reconciliation, and respect for human rights and international law.

He called on the rebels to renew dialogue towards ending four decades of civil conflict.

Most of the 3,000 people kidnapped by the rebels are Colombians.

Atrocities continue

Meanwhile an independent commission in Colombia says massacres, torture and abductions are continuing in the northern Sierra Nevada region, being carried out by right-wing paramilitary groups, as well as left-wing rebels.

The commission, made up of Roman Catholic priests and human rights officials, said urgently-needed food and medicines were being prevented from reaching the region by the continued fighting.

It called on the Colombian Government to introduce emergency aid into Sierra Nevada, and not just intervene there militarily.

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