Leftist rebels kidnapped at least 99 churchgoers, including the parish priest and numerous children, at the end of a Mass today in an exclusive neighborhood of the southwestern city of Cali.
Seventy-nine hostages were later abandoned and found in nearby mountains by pursuing soldiers, armed forces chief Gen. Fernando Tapias said. At least 43 of them were flown by helicopter to a military base here and the others were safely in the hands of troops, Mora said. There was no immediate word on their condition or why they were released.
About 30 rebels dressed in military garb arrived in two canvas-covered trucks just as the 10 a.m. Roman Catholic service was ending at La Maria church in the southern residential district of Ciudad Jardin.
The rebels, who shot and killed the bodyguard of one of the churchgoers, belonged to the National Liberation Army, or ELN, Colombia's second-largest rebel band, authorities said. Cali Mayor Ricardo Cobo said authorities had compiled a list of 99 people, including about 15 children and the priest, believed loaded into the trucks and spirited away by the rebels.
The trucks headed south into guerrilla-held mountains above the town of Jamundi. Army troops and police commandos pursued them, and at least two guerrillas were killed and one rebel and two soldiers were wounded in subsequent firefights, said Col. Gerardo Contreras, operations commander of the army's Third Brigade.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
Colombian guerrillas control about 40 percent of rural Colombia, but have no history of major operations in urban centers.
The kidnapping came six weeks after the National Liberation Army hijacked a domestic Avianca flight, forcing it to land on a remote airstrip and herding away the passengers and crew. The hijacking highlighted the level of insecurity in Colombia, where guerrilla warfare has been going on for 30 years. The rebels still hold 25 of the 41 people abducted in the April 12 hijacking.
Today's abduction further exacerbated the fears of Colombia's elite. The affected neighborhood is home to some of Cali's richest residents.
Guerrillas of the ELN and the Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC, have a strong presence in the countryside surrounding Cali, the country's third-largest city.
Kidnapping for ransom is a key revenue source for both groups, but the Avianca plane abduction appeared to have political overtones. Leaders of the National Liberation Army have complained that President Andres Pastrana has taken them far less seriously in peace overtures than the larger and more powerful FARC.