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Farmers release police hostages in Guatemala row

(Recasts with release of hostages)

GUATEMALA CITY, Feb 22 (Reuters) - Hundreds of angry farmers released the 29 policemen they had been holding hostage in a remote Guatemala village, and started talks for the release of a Mayan leader arrested for invading land, officials said on Friday.

Police reinforcements were sent up the winding jungle river in the state of Izabal to negotiate the release of policemen held for more than 24 hours in a town near Guatemala's Caribbean coast that is only accessible by boat.

The farmers have demanded the release of Ramiro Choc, who was arrested last week for illegally invading land, and negotiations for his release were to be held with the police.

Guatemala's interior minister had said the farmers would be charged for kidnapping if they did not let the police go.

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

Land disputes were one of the catalysts for the country's 1960-1996 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 in his first few weeks in office has had trouble controlling crime. (Reporting by Herbert Hernandez, editing by Jackie Frank)

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