Colombia threatens to kick out ransom-paying firms

The FARC is Colombia`s oldest, largest leftist group, with 8,000 combatants.

Carimagua: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Thursday warned multinational companies they will be kicked out of the country if they pay ransoms to rebel groups or other criminals holding their employees.

"I want to give a very clear warning: businesses that pay a single peso to one of these bandits will be leaving the country," Santos said at a public event in the town of Puerto Gaitan in central Meta province.

The warning came two days after 22 of 23 employees of South American Exploration, a subcontractor of Canadian oil company Talisman Energy and Colombia`s Ecopetrol, were freed by their kidnappers. Some of those taken hostage said their company had paid a ransom.

Noting that it was a criminal offense under Colombian law to pay off kidnappers with ransom payments, Santos said "insinuations" that the hostages` employers had negotiated a payment for their release had to be investigated.

"We cannot permit anybody, anybody to nourish these bandits, who will only use the money to produce more violence and more insecurity," he said.

Admiral Edgar Cely, the armed forces commander, told journalists, however, that the oil workers may have been kidnapped because their companies refused to pay protection money.

"According to our information, they had been threatened and were victims of extortion attempts. In recent days, they were hit with an explosion and the kidnapping followed soon after, as a pressure tactic," he said.

"But according to our information, this company did not pay and that seems to me a very good thing."

Gunmen seized the oil workers on Monday in the first mass kidnapping of civilians since Santos took office seven months ago.

The kidnapping prompted an intensive search by the Colombian Army and air force. A break came when one of the hostages escaped and then led the Army to the area where the others had been held.

The government blamed the kidnapping on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a leftist guerrilla group that has been at war with the state since 1964.

Officials said a unit of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels and criminal gangs operate in the region, Vichada department, some 600 kilometres (370 miles) east of Bogota.

The FARC, which has been at war with the Colombian government since 1964, is the country`s oldest and largest leftist group, with an estimated 8,000 combatants.

Several criminal gangs also engage in drug trafficking and some count former paramilitary officers among their ranks.

Last year, 282 people were kidnapped in the South American country -- a 32 percent increase compared to the previous year, according to official figures.

Criminals were responsible for most of the kidnappings -- 57 percent -- compared to 35 percent for leftist guerrillas.

The Calgary-based Talisman`s main operating areas are North America, the North Sea and Southeast Asia, according to its website. It is working with Ecopetrol in Colombia.

Bureau Report

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