updated 7/24/2006 2:40:58 AM ET 2006-07-24T06:40:58

Nine environmentalists were released Sunday by their rebel captors after they disappeared mysteriously days earlier while conducting research in northern Colombia, the military said.

The researchers work for Corpocesar, an environmental office in the government of the province of Cesar, which has partnerships with Conservation International. They had been researching in the Sierra de Perija, some 375 miles north of the capital of Bogota and did not return Thursday as expected.

Cesar province is home to leftist rebels and far-right paramilitaries locked in a four-decade civil war.

Given that Colombia has one of the highest kidnapping rates in the world, there were fears they had been abducted but no confirmation. Authorities announced the group’s disappearance Sunday, but held off from confirming it was a kidnapping before they heard from the abductors.

The military said rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, kidnapped the nine on Friday morning.

“We are doing major operations in the area, closing off the escape routes and because of this pressure, they were forced to free the hostages,” said Gen. Jairo Pena, who is overseeing the army in the area.

The army said some guerrillas surrendered under pressure from the military operations. The rebels told the army they kidnapped the nine for propaganda purposes and to raise revenue by ransom, Pena said.

The army estimates some 35 rebels were involved.

“We are chasing them now,” said Pena.

A resident in the area alerted the army Saturday evening of the abduction and the military immediately began searching for the hostages.

The nine included five researchers from a local government environment office, a cameraman, two guides and a driver.

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