By Herbert Hernandez
GUATEMALA CITY, March 16 (Reuters) - Four Belgian tourists held hostage for 40 hours by peasant farmers in the Guatemalan jungle and released unharmed could fly home on Monday, a Belgian embassy spokesman said on Sunday.
The four middle-aged holiday makers were seized along with two Guatemalan guides as they traveled up a river from the Caribbean coast on Friday by machete-wielding farmers angry over the arrest of a local Mayan leader.
The tourists, released shortly before midnight in a swap with detained activists, were flown to Guatemala City and greeted by Guatemalan Vice President Rafael Espada, who said he would write to the Belgian government to apologize .
They spent the early hours of Sunday undergoing medical checks at a Guatemalan naval base at the Caribbean port of Puerto Barrios, where they were taken by a naval ship after their release to negotiators from the human rights ombudsman’s office.
"We want to apologize to the Belgian government for the incident and tell them we will make sure it doesn’t happen again," Espada said after meeting the Belgians, who looked tired but relaxed.
A spokesman for the nearest Belgian embassy, in Costa Rica, said the tourists could be flown home to Belgium on Monday.
"We are very happy that the Belgian tourists have been released," said Maribel Ramos, governor of Izabel department in eastern Guatemala where the Belgians had taken a boat from the Caribbean town of Livingstone up the winding Rio Dulce river.
Two Guatemalans, a tour guide and the boat captain, seized with the Belgians near the riverside town of Rio Dulce, were also released. Boat trips up the emerald-green Rio Dulce, which winds through dense jungle, are popular with backpackers.
The Belgians range in age from 59 to 64, and negotiators were worried about one who had heart problems.
The mob of farmers had threatened to hold the group until Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom agreed to talk to them about freeing jailed community leader Ramiro Choc, whose supporters say he is fighting for land rights.
But police arrested a handful of the farmer activists in a scuffle on Saturday and a swap was negotiated between them and the six captives.
The same group of farmers briefly held 29 policemen hostage in February demanding the release of Choc.
Close to half of Guatemala’s population are indigenous peasants, many of them landless, who often occupy land to carry out subsistence farming. Land disputes were one of the catalysts for Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war, which left around 250,000 people dead or missing.
Colom, who took office in January, has vowed to reduce poverty and violence. (Additional reporting by Brendan Kolbay in Rio Dulce and Mark John in Brussels; Writing by Catherine Bremer, editing by Philip Barbara)