GUATEMALA CITY – Authorities were negotiating Saturday for the release of four Belgians, their Guatemalan guide and a boat operator who were taken hostage by farmers seeking the release of their imprisoned leader, officials said.
The Belgians — two women and two men — were taken captive Friday in Rio Dulce, a tourist area 155 miles northeast of Guatemala City, according Jose Roberto Goubaud, spokesman for the Guatemala's national tourism institute.
"Police have specific instructions to not do anything to put the tourists in danger," Goubaud said.
Francois Delhaye, a spokesman for the Belgian Foreign Ministry, said Saturday: "We're in touch with the local authorities, who have started negotiating with the kidnappers. They seem to know well who they are so they've established contact."
In a phone interview from the boat where they were being held, one of the kidnapped Belgians told The Associated Press the travelers were touring caves in the region Friday morning when they were kidnapped.
"When we returned to the boat, two people that we didn't know ... came on board and suddenly we had 15 people on the boat," said Eric Stosstris, 62.
Stosstris 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.
The kidnappers moved them from place to place after the abduction, he reported.
"We are held against our will, but they haven't hurt us," Stosstris said, speaking on a cell phone belonging to one of the kidnappers.
The kidnappers belong to the same group that took 29 policemen hostage last month in the Caribbean coastal town of Livingston, Goubaud said.
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. At the time of the first hostage-taking, he urged his supporters to release the police officers in a telephone call from jail.
Officials accuse Choc of inciting locals to seize land and take over protected nature reserves. Members of the mob said they had lived on the disputed land for more than a decade and that a powerful person was trying to kick them off it.