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BOGOTA (Reuters) - Five workers, including a Canadian, two Peruvians and two Colombians, were kidnapped on Friday by leftist rebels at a gold mine in northern Colombia, the army said.
"A group of 20 or 25 bandits from the ELN burst into the place and kidnapped five people," army General Alejandro Navas told reporters, referring to the National Liberation Army, Colombia's second largest guerrilla group.
Canadian mining company Braeval said those kidnapped worked at its Snow mine project.
Navas said soldiers backed by the air force had launched an operation to track down the rebels. He said the kidnapped workers included a Canadian, two Peruvians and two Colombians.
Braeval said it was cooperating with the authorities to ensure the health and safety of its employees. It said three employees and two consultants were abducted but did not release their nationalities.
While security in Colombia has improved in recent years following a U.S.-funded offensive against leftist rebels, the kidnapping highlighted the risks still faced by foreign investors in the Andean country.
Attacks against oil and mining installations increased substantially last year, and the government is beefing up the roughly 70,000 troops defending oil and mining operations.
Colombia has dealt significant blows to the ELN, and to the biggest guerrilla movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), forcing rebels deep into the jungle and opening swaths of land for oil and mining exploration.
Latin America's fourth-largest oil producer attracted as much as $16 billion in foreign investment in 2012, up from around $2 billion in 2002.
The ELN is not part of peace talks being held in Cuba between President Juan Manuel Santos' government and the FARC, but the ELN has asked to join the discussions.
An ELN leader told Reuters in August that the group was willing to hold unconditional peace talks.
Santos says he wants the talks with FARC, which began late last year, to be wrapped up by November, but the FARC has said reaching a peace accord cannot be rushed.
Security sources, who asked not to be named, said the kidnapping could be part of a plan by the ELN leadership to pressure the government into inviting them to the talks.
In the 1990s, the ELN resorted to a series of kidnappings that prompted then president Andres Pastrana to call for a peace deal. The group has an estimated 3,000 fighters and is listed as a terrorist group by the U.S. government.
The guerrilla group kidnapped 11 oil workers in northeastern Colombia last year, but released them a week later.
Reporting by Eduardo Garcia; Editing by Mohammad Zargham