Colombian rebels have kidnapped a Canadian and four others at a Canadian-owned gold mine in the country.
Rebels from the leftist National Liberation Army, or ELN, seized the Canadian, two Peruvians and two Colombians on Friday morning at the Snow Mine in northern Colombia, operated by Canadian company Braeval Mining Corp.
"A group of 20 or 25 bandits from the ELN burst into the place and kidnapped five people," Colombian army General Alejandro Navas told reporters. He said soldiers backed by the air force had launched an operation to track down the rebels.
Braeval issued a statement saying that three employees and two consultants were abducted Friday morning at the Snow Mine. The company said it is "fully co-operating with efforts of the authorities to ensure the safety and health of its employees and consultants."
A spokesman for Canada's Foreign Affairs Department, Chrystiane Roy, said the government is aware of reports of the kidnapping. "We are pursuing all appropriate channels to seek further information and are in close contact with Colombian authorities," she said.
The mine, located in Norosi in the Bolivar department of northern Colombia, is in an area where several Canadian companies are involved in mining and mineral exploration.
"Definitely it is a shock to us. We are assessing the situation. We have about 10 geologists on site from Bolivia, from Peru and from Colombia. We have Canadians going there frequently," said Harold Barbosa, a director at Cabia Goldhills Inc., a publicly listed Canadian explorer focused on the area where the kidnappings took place.
The region is regarded as highly prolific for gold, but better known for its artisanal miners than publicly listed companies.
"The area where we are has been a safe area. There is an army presence 24 hours a day where we are," he said. "We feel safe, but this is news we can't disregard."
The ELN, the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional, is the second-largest of Colombia's leftist guerrilla groups, after the better-known Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The ELN is listed as a terrorist entity by both Canada and the United States, but Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos launched talks with the group in December. Active since the early 1960s, the ELN has long used kidnapping to finance its activities.
"The group believes foreign involvement in Colombia's oil industry violates the country's sovereignty and foreign companies are unfairly exploiting Colombia's natural resources," states the Canadian government's terror listing for the ELN.
With a report from Reuters