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Tuesday, 19 September, 2000, 00:21 GMT 01:21 UK
Rebels release restaurant captives
Colombian army search cars
The army scoured the area for the captives
The authorities in Colombia say up to 23 of the people kidnapped by left-wing rebels over the weekend from two restaurants near the city of Cali have been released.

At least 50 people are believed to have been abducted when guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN) set up roadblocks along a main road and forced their captives to drive into nearby mountains.

It is the latest in a series of mass kidnappings carried out by the ELN, who use the ransom payments to fund their armed campaign against the state.

President Andres Pastrana flew to the area to co-ordinate rescue efforts by the security forces.

Scouring the mountains

Police say the hostages were released in three groups as the rebels sought to speed up their retreat into the Cordillera Occidental mountains.

Anti-Narcotics police keep guard in a coca field as a plane fumigates the crop close to Tumaco
Anti-drug forces have also been clamping down on the rebels' cocaine trade
On Sunday evening, ELN guerrillas erected makeshift roadblocks along a stretch of highway lined with popular restaurants and weekend homes in the Andes mountains about 18km (11 miles) northwest of Cali.

About 50 armed men, many in military uniform wearing bullet-proof vests, stormed the Cabin and Embassy of Geneva restaurants seizing hostages.

A couple were also taken from a nearby farm.

Kidnap capital

Police and military officials began scouring the mountains early on Monday in an attempt to track down the rebels and free the hostages, if necessary by force.

One of the captives released on Monday was an American woman, who indicated in a radio interview that she had only been released so she could relay ransom demands.

Colombia is the kidnap capital of the world, with 3,000 abductions reported in 1999 and an average of more seven a day reported this year.

Last year, gunman burst into a church and kidnapped the entire congregation of 150 people and the priest. They later demanded large ransoms.

The latest kidnapping - the largest this year - happened after fierce fighting broke out in the north-west of the country between rebels and government troops.

Fighting in Colombia is estimated to have killed 35,000 since 1990.

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See also:

09 Sep 00 | Americas
Hijacked Colombian plane released
07 Sep 00 | Americas
Drug submarine found in Colombia
29 Aug 00 | Americas
US commits to Colombia
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Major drugs cartel smashed
08 Jun 00 | World
My story: The drug smuggler
18 Sep 00 | Americas
Mass abduction from Cali restaurants
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