Officials: Belgian Hostages Held by Guatemalan Farmers Freed

Four Belgian tourists held hostage by protesting farmers were released late Saturday after security forces in boats and helicopters located the group in Guatemala's eastern jungle, officials said.

The four Belgians, their Guatemalan guide and a boat operator were traveling in a tourist area 155 miles northeast of Guatemala City when they were abducted Friday by farmers demanding the release of their jailed leader.

Authorities had been negotiating with the kidnappers, while at the same time 150 police officers in boats and soldiers in helicopters searched the jungle area for the hostages to mount a rescue mission if talks failed, officials said.

Late Saturday, Ronaldo Robles, the communications secretary of Guatemala's presidency, said the Belgians were free. "We can confirm that the Belgian citizens in the hands of the farmers have been freed," Robles told The Associated Press by telephone.

Luis Chol, a member of the farmers' group that took the six hostages, said they were forced to release the Belgians because they were being attacked.

The police "followed us and attacked us and killed one of our comrades," Chol told the AP by telephone.

Robles denied anyone was killed. He said the hostages will be taken to a naval base on the Guatemalan Caribbean and then flown to Guatemala City early Sunday.

The Belgians were identified as Eric Stosstris, 62, his wife Jenny Stosstris, 59, and their friends Gabriel and Mary Paul Van Huysse, ages 64 and 62, all from Ghent.

Robles said they were exchanged for three farmers who had been arrested by police earlier Saturday. It was unclear if the two Guatemalans had been released.

Rolando Yoc, a human rights official who was mediating the standoff, said "now it is up to the government to set up negotiations as planned."

The government had said they wouldn't meet any of the farmers' demands until the tourists were released.

The farmers are demanding the legalization of their land claims and freedom for their leader, Ramiro Choc, who was arrested Feb. 14 on charges of illegal land invasion, robbery and holding people against their will. They contend they have lived on the disputed land for more than a decade and that a powerful person is trying to kick them off it.

In a phone interview earlier Saturday, a leader of the farmers who identified himself as Roberto Xol had 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 to a town, whose name and location he declined to reveal.

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

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

"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," he said on Friday.

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.