Suspected right-wing gunmen abducted about 190 farm laborers, including children, as they were being bused home from work at a plantation in rural eastern Colombia, the army said on Wednesday.
In one of the biggest mass kidnaps in Colombia's violent recent history, armed men dressed in camouflage forced workers off their vehicles on Tuesday afternoon as they traveled home, said Gen. Ramiro Bautista, head of the army's 16th Brigade.
Hildebrando Leon, mayor of the town of Villanueva, said the gunmen had singled out men and women under the age of 28. Those abducted included 53 minors and one woman, the army said.
Jaime Sanchez, a worker who was on a bus but was allowed to go home, said his two sons were taken away by the gunmen, who did not identify themselves and gave no explanations. "They made us get out and they sorted out the young from the old," Sanchez said.
A military unit rushed to the area near the El Palmar plantation in Casanare Province, in the tropical lowlands about 90 miles (140 km) east of Colombia's Andean mountain capital of Bogota, said Gen. Fernando Tapias, the armed forces commander.
TWO BRIGADES COOPERATING
"The 16th Brigade in Casanare and the 7th Brigade in Meta are coordinating to find this group, which is fleeing with its hostages, and free them," he told reporters, adding that the gunmen appeared to be right-wing paramilitary outlaws.
He said later that they had taken about 190 prisoners.
Soldiers have captured two men who were driving trucks used by the gunmen, Tapias said. They were due to be interrogated.
Paramilitaries - funded partly by landowners, partly by traffic in cocaine - target suspected rebel sympathizers. The government says they have killed over 500 people this year.
They have been responsible for many of the worst cases of brutality in Colombia's 37-year-old, three-way war, which pits leftist rebels against the outlawed far-right vigilantes and the armed forces. About 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict in the last decade alone.
In more fighting on Thursday, 11 paramilitaries and one soldier were killed in Caqueta Province, the army said. Earlier, the 11 killed by the army had been said to be leftist guerrillas.
Paramilitaries allegedly killed 40 peasants in the remote southern region of Naya in mid-April. The body of a 17-year-old girl was found with the arms cut off. About 40 paramilitaries were later captured, one of them carrying a chain saw.
Fueled by frustration at the military's failure to defeat the rebels, paramilitary numbers grew from fewer than 1,000 in 1992 to some 8,000 in 2000, according to government figures.
Legal officials speculated the paramilitaries in Villanueva could be trying to forcibly recruit laborers into their ranks or else put pressure on locals to pay extortion money.
The FARC - Spanish initials for Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - also operates near Villanueva, the army said.
Human rights groups and the United Nations say the government has not done enough to break links between the paramilitaries and some military members. But President Andres Pastrana, who is trying to negotiate peace with the Marxist rebels, has vowed to crack down on the far-right vigilantes.
Tuesday's incident was the second mass abduction this year in Colombia. A Cuban-inspired guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), seized 100 employees of U.S. oil company Occidental Petroleum as they were being bused back from work at a jungle oil field in April. The ELN freed them within days.
Colombia has by far the highest rate of kidnappings in the world, with almost 4,000 taking place in 2000. Leftist guerrillas rely on ransom payments as a major source of funds, but kidnapping is also used as a weapon of fear.