The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is believed to have seized four Israelis, two Britons, one German and a Spaniard late on Saturday from a group of tourists hiking near the Sierra Nevada mountains, about 1000km north of the capital Bogota.

About 2000 troops and police, backed by helicopters and tanks, on Monday intensified their search of mountains in northern Colombia for the eight tourists.

But five other foreigners have revealed they were left behind simply because they did not have proper walking shoes. And another said he was free because the rebels agreed he could stay with his girlfriend.

Police operations chief General Luis Alfredo Rodriguez said a FARC commando unit had led the eight up towards the 6000-metre high snow-flanked Sierra Nevada.

The Israeli captives were identified by authorities as Benny Daniel, 26; Orpaz Ohayun, 22; Ido Yosef Guy, 26; Erez Altawil, 24.

Officials said the other hostages were Matthew Scott and Mark Henderson of Britain, Reinhilt Weigl of Germany, and Asier Huegun Etxeberria of Spain.

Saved by sandals

One of the members of the group that had been left behind, Australian James Schultz, told local media the tourists had been woken up by four armed men and ordered to follow them.

A few seconds later, the 14 hikers were met by about 15 armed rebels.

Relieved: Michelle Walkden from
Australia among those released


 
"The eight who were taken away had mountain boots," recalled Schultz. "The six of us only had sandals."
 
Schultz said the tourists were well treated.

Still, authorities were not amused and put part of the blame on the foreigners themselves.

"One has to wonder: What the hell were those guys doing in that very difficult area?" fumed Vice President Francisco Santos.

Escape

Another member of the group of tourists said he escaped capture thanks to his girlfriend.

"All the members of our group, which included our Colombian guides, were tied up and the men warned us that the door was booby-trapped with a grenade," said Ran Hatmon.

About 3000 people are abducted
in South American state annually

"Some of our group managed to undo the knots and jump out of the window," said the Israeli.

"The kidnappers, it seems, decided not to take me with the others because I asked to stay with my girlfriend Dana, and perhaps they didn't want her for fear of slowing down their escape."  

The rescue operation is being personally supervised by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

Long term prisoners
 
Army First Division troops, based in Santa Marta, 955km north of Bogota, capital of Magdalena province, jointly with regional police have launched search operations on the mountain.
 
"We are engaged in intense military operations in the region, mainly in a wide area of the Tayrona park and in parts of the Sierra Nevada where the terrorists often hide their hostages," said First Division commander General Leonel Gomez.

The FARC, Latin America's biggest guerrilla group with 17,000 fighters, is currently holding 21 politicians, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. It is also holding 800 civilians captive, some of them for up to six years, as well as 47 army officers.

At least 3000 people are kidnapped annually in Colombia where some 200,000 people have been killed in the civil conflict in the South American country since 1964.