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American recounts kidnapping in Colombia

BOGOTA, Colombia, (Reuters) -- Globe-trotting U.S. motorcyclist Glen Heggstad says he has been held at gunpoint by opium bandits in Thailand, robbed by the military in El Salvador and dogged by dengue fever in Guatemalan jungles.

But the 49-year-old former Hell's Angel from Palm Springs, California, says he's never been more scared in his life than when he was kidnapped for five weeks by leftist rebels in war-ravaged Colombia.

"It was hell. I thought I was going to die," Heggstad, a black-belt martial arts instructor and self-dubbed "outlaw on the edge," said in an interview this week in Bogota days after the rebels released him to the Red Cross.

Heggstad, who set out on October 1 on a planned 20,000-mile (32,200-km) solo trip from California to the tip of South America and back, was traveling in northern Colombia when he ran into a roadblock by guerrillas of the National Liberation Army, Colombia's second-largest rebel force.

Clad in military fatigues and wielding assault rifles, the rebels herded Heggstad and other hostages into deep jungle, he said. For five weeks, he marched long, silent hours from camp to camp. He sometimes rode on mule back and he slept in a makeshift tent.

"It was extremely exhausting. It rained every night. They gave us a cup of rice in the morning and a cup of rice in the evening. Sometimes canned sardines. I lost 40 pounds."

Heggstad, who is 6 feet 4 inches (1.9 meters) tall and weighed 220 pounds (99.8 kg) when he started his trip, said he feared he was going to get killed the night a military helicopter flew over the rebel camp.

"It was flying so low I could smell its fuel. The jungle was shaking. The trees were shaking. The ground was shaking."

Mock executions

Looking tired, sporting stubble and dressed in a T-shirt that read "Guilty," Heggstad recounted how rebels feigned mock executions with the hostages and played a small radio tuned to a rebel station spitting "anti-gringo" slogans.

But he also described lighter moments, such as when he taught martial-arts holds to his captors, many of whom he said were little more than "14-year-old boys and girls with AK-47s."

He said he was released on December 8 on "humanitarian grounds" and paid no money for his freedom. The ELN -- as the rebel group is known in Spanish -- kidnaps hundreds of people every year to obtain ransom to fund a 37-year war that has killed 40,000 people, mainly civilians, in the last decade alone.

The rebel tactic of kidnapping people at roadblocks has made many a Colombian highway a no-go area. One foreigner per week is kidnapped on average. With 4,000 abductions in 2000, Colombia is by far the world's kidnapping capital.

Last October, a British backpacker was killed during a skirmish between the army and the ELN, one day after rebels pulled him off a bus.

Heggstad, who has traveled through Thailand, Cambodia and Central America, said he knew about Colombia's dangers.

"I knew it was risky but I had to give it a shot. There's something about the Third World. ... I love the freedom, I love the wind in my face," said the tattooed Heggstad.

He has chronicled his trip on the Internet (http:/ under the name "Striking Viking" -- a reference to his Nordic descent.

After his release, U.S. embassy officials in Colombia helped him get a new passport. He now is waiting for his friends back home to ship him a new motorcycle to replace his 650 Kawasaki, which was stolen by the rebels. He says he plans to continue his journey -- but from Ecuador.

"I'm shook up but I'm not going to allow those guys to ruin my trip. I'm ready to rock 'n' roll."


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