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Belgians tourists held captive in Guatemala

Two women and two men are being held
March 15, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Authorities were negotiating Saturday for the release of four Belgians, their Guatemalan guide and a boat operator who were taken hostage by farmers demanding freedom for their imprisoned leader. The Belgians - two women and two men - were taken captive Friday in Rio Dulce, a tourist area 155 miles northeast of Guatemala City.

In a phone interview with The Associated Press, a leader of the farmers who identified himself as Roberto Xol said the hostages "are being well cared for. They have food, they're calm, and we've made them conscious of the struggle in Izabal state and why they're participating in this."

Xol said the kidnappers sailed along the river to throw police off their track and then took the captives late Friday to a town, whose name and location he declined to reveal.

"A representative of the government communicated with us and we're looking for dialogue to free the Belgian citizens," Xol said.

Tourist Eric Stosstris told the AP on Saturday, also by cell phone, that the captives had not been hurt and the abductors were giving them food.

"We are OK. We have not been harmed," Stosstris said. "We are being kept in wooden huts and we hope to be released soon."

The travelers were touring caves in the region when they were accosted by two men armed with machetes, according to Stosstris, 62.

He identified the other Belgian captives as his wife Jenny Stosstris, 59, and their friends Gabriel and Mary Paul Van Huysse, ages 64 and 62, all from Ghent.

Belgian Foreign Ministry spokesman Francois Delhaye said the Belgian government was "in touch with the local authorities, who have started negotiating with the kidnappers. They seem to know well who they are."

The kidnappers belong to the same group that took 29 policemen hostage last month in the Caribbean coastal town of Livingston, said Jose Roberto Goubaud, spokesman for Guatemala's national tourism institute.

On Feb. 23, an angry mob of farmers held the officers for almost two days before releasing them in exchange for talks about legalizing their land claims and dropping charges against the jailed leader, Ramiro Choc.

Choc was arrested Feb. 14 on charges of illegal land invasion, robbery and holding people against their will. Officials accuse him of inciting locals to seize land and take over protected nature reserves.

"Freeing Choc is something that is out of the hands of the executive branch, and that's why it would be difficult to fulfill that request," said Ricardo Gatica, a spokesman for Guatemala's Interior Ministry. "But we are keeping the dialogue open."

 

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