LAGUNILLA EL SALVADOR, Guatemala – Security forces in boats and helicopters were searching Guatemala’s eastern jungle Saturday for four Belgian tourists and two Guatemalans who were taken hostage by farmers demanding freedom for their imprisoned leader.
About 150 police officers, traveling in two large boats, searched several homes along the Rio Dulce river, while army helicopters flew over the area where the Belgians — two men and two women — were taken captive Friday along with their Guatemalan guide and a boat operator.
Ricardo Gatica, a spokesman for Guatemala’s Interior Ministry, said the officers had been sent to the Rio Dulce area, a tourist destination 250 kilometers (155 miles) northeast of Guatemala City, in case negotiations fail.
“We want to negotiate but if the negotiation fails we will put in place a search, rescue and capture plan,” Gatica said.
In a phone interview with The Associated Press, a leader of the farmers who identified himself as Roberto Xol 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.”
The farmers are demanding the legalization of their land claims and freedom for their leader, who was jailed earlier in connection with land occupations.
Xol said the kidnappers sailed along the river to throw police off their track and then took the captives late Friday to a town, whose name and location he declined to reveal.
“A representative of the government communicated with us and we’re looking for dialogue to free the Belgian citizens,” Xol said.
Tourist Eric Stosstris told the AP on Saturday, also by cell phone, that the captives had not been hurt and the abductors were giving them food.
“We are being kept in wooden huts and we hope to be released soon,” Stosstris said.
The travelers were touring caves in the region when they were accosted by two men armed with machetes, according to Stosstris, 62.
“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 in a separate interview Friday.
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.
Belgian Foreign Ministry spokesman Francois Delhaye said the Belgian government was “in touch with the local authorities, who have started negotiating with the kidnappers. They seem to know well who they are.”
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.
On Feb. 23, a mob of farmers held the officers for almost two days before releasing them in exchange for talks about legalizing land claims and dropping charges against their leader, Ramiro Choc.
Choc was arrested Feb. 14 on charges of illegal land invasion, robbery and holding people against their will.
“Freeing Choc is something that is out of the hands of the executive branch, and that’s why it would be difficult to fulfill that request,” Gatica said. “But we are keeping the dialogue open.”
Last month, 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.