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Guatemala farmers take four Belgian tourists hostage

GUATEMALA CITY, March 14 (Reuters) - Two Belgian couples on holiday in Guatemala were taken hostage on Friday, along with two Guatemalan guides, by a group of farmers angry over the arrest of a local Mayan leader, the Belgium consulate said.

Hundreds of farmers stopped and surrounded a small motor boat as it took the tourists up the remote, emerald-green Rio Dulce river near the Caribbean coast. They later told a radio station the tourists were safe but would be held until authorities released the indigenous leader, who was arrested last month for invading land.

"The boat was taken around midday but we have not been able to confirm the identity of the Belgians," said Liana Santa Cruz, an employee at Belgium's small consulate office in Guatemala City. She said the Guatemalan navy was sending a ship up the river to look for the hostages.

The captors had taken the boat further upriver to hide it from police, one of the captured tourist guides told Guatemalan radio by cell phone.

"We don't know where we are but we've been moving about in the boat for several hours," guide Mauricio Dubon said.

"We haven't been physically hurt, but we haven't eaten since 10 o'clock (in the morning) and they are moving the boat to different canals off the Rio Dulce."

One of the Belgian tourists told the radio in French that the group was unharmed.

The same group of Mayan farmers held 29 policemen hostage for more than 24 hours in February demanding the release of Ramiro Choc, a community leader whose supporters say he is fighting for land rights.

Close to half of Guatemala's population are indigenous peasants, many of them landless, who often invade land for subsistence farming.

"The tourists are fine, but we are not going to let them go until the government releases Ramiro Choc," Juan Tuyun, the group's leader told the local radio.

Land disputes were one of the catalysts for Guatemala's 1960-96 civil war between leftist guerrillas and the government, which left around 250,000 people dead or missing.

The country's left-leaning president Alvaro Colom, who took office in January, has promised to reduce poverty and violence but has had trouble controlling crime so far. (Reporting by Herbert Hernandez and Brendan Kolbay; Writing by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Stuart Grudgings)

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