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FARC rebels release 4 Chinese oil workers

Cesar Garcia, Associated Press

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- Colombia's main leftist rebel group has released four Chinese oil workers in the same southern jungles where it kidnapped them 17 months ago, authorities said Thursday.

The four Chinese nationals, three contractors and a translator, were the only foreigners known to be held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Their release around midnight Wednesday to the International Red Cross comes three days after the FARC and Colombia's government began peace talks in Cuba.

The rebels announced in February that they were halting all kidnapping and they insist they are holding no more captives, neither "political prisoners" nor "economic" hostages. The rebels, who have been fighting successive Colombian governments for a half century, have used kidnapping for political leverage and as a financing source.

It was not known whether a ransom was paid for the four men. State police chief Col. Carlos Vargas said they were released in good shape in a rural area of San Vicente del Caguan.

Employed by the British company Emerald Energy, which is part of the China-based Sinochem Group, they were seized June 8, 2011, while engaged in oil exploration work.

The men's driver, who was released with their vehicle, said they were taken by at least seven FARC rebels.

Authorities identified the freed men as Tang Guofu, 28, Zhao Hongwei, 36, Jian Mingfu, 46, and Jiang Shan, 24. They said Jiang was the translator.

National police director Gen. Jose Roberto Leon told reporters that the liberation was coordinated by the International Committee of the Red Cross and China's embassy.

Neither of those institutions responded immediately to phone calls seeking comment. Nor did Emerald Energy's offices in Bogota.

China's ambassador, Wang Xiaoyuan, said in a radio interview last week that the embassy had never received any proof-of-life evidence for the four men and that neither their relatives nor that company had contact with them.