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Briton Escapes Abductors in Jungle

Colombian villagers aid the tourist after he broke away from his kidnappers, who still hold seven others.

September 25, 2003|Ruth Morris | Special to The Times

BOGOTA, Colombia — A British tourist kidnapped nearly two weeks ago in this nation's northern jungles escaped his captors and took refuge in an Indian village until he was picked up by troops Wednesday, Colombia's armed forces chief told reporters.

Matthew Scott, 19, apparently slipped away from his kidnappers several days earlier, said Gen. Carlos Alberto Ospina. Scott then hiked through dense undergrowth along the remote slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range until he came across members of the Kogui indigenous group.

The search was still on for seven tourists abducted with Scott: another Briton, four Israelis, a Spaniard and a German. The abductors, believed to be leftist rebels, seized them Sept. 12 as the foreigners were camped in cabins near the archeological ruins of Colombia's Lost City.

Speaking to local journalists from a hospital bed in the coastal city of Santa Marta, Scott said that in captivity he had endured long hikes in treacherous conditions and with little food as the kidnappers tried to stay ahead of rescue teams.

His fellow hostages, Scott said, were depressed and worn out.

"An Israeli man had asthma, and the others are very demoralized," he said. "They have to walk a lot every day in the rain, and the guerrillas are not giving them very much food."

Ospina, who is overseeing rescue efforts, said Scott escaped by throwing himself "down a ravine in the high part of the mountain." Kogui Indians took the young man in Tuesday night and sent a messenger to alert the nearest army patrol, the general said.

Troops arrived just after dawn Wednesday and took Scott to a military hospital.

Villagers told reporters that Scott had asked for sugar water, bland tortillas and army rations when soldiers reached him. Unconfirmed reports by a radio station also quoted the Indians as saying he was extremely weak and vomiting constantly while in their care.

A British Embassy spokesman said later Wednesday that Scott was "in good health and good spirits."

Scott's escape provided clues for hundreds of troops, backed by helicopter gunships, who are combing the Sierra Nevada in search of the remaining hostages. Ospina said the kidnappers still appear to be in an area encircled by his men, and that Scott "was able to indicate to us that the bandits haven't passed [military] control points."

Both of Colombia's main leftist rebel armies, the National Liberation Army and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and their right-wing paramilitary foes have been known to set up camp in the area.

Military officials say FARC rebels are likely suspects in the kidnappings, although the group denied responsibility last week. A paramilitary umbrella group also said its fighters were not involved.

Five foreigners who were left behind by the kidnappers related how camouflaged gunmen had descended on the cabins, tying up the tourists and ripping into their backpacks. Australian hiker Mark Tuite, who was there but not kidnapped, welcomed the news of Scott's escape.

"He was really fit. He showed up at the camp with a machete and with Wellington boots," Tuite told Caracol Television. "Running away from the guerrillas and doing it in a really thick, dangerous jungle? He's a very brave kid."

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