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Colombian rebels free U.S. hostages

Marxist rebels Saturday freed the last two of four U.S. bird-watchers taken hostage in mountains outside Bogota, ending their 34-day kidnap ordeal.

Foreign and local reporters witnessed the release of Peter Shen of New York and Todd Mark of Houston, who were handed over to Red Cross officials by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebels.

They were freed in the same rugged mountains east of the capital where the rebels released Louise Augustine, an ailing former nun from Chillicothe, Ill., on Friday.

Fighting between the FARC rebels and army troops raged in the area for the second straight day Saturday, and mortar bombs pounded guerrilla positions in the mountains all morning as the FARC prepared to set Shen and Mark free.

All three, together with a fourth American, Thomas Fiori of New York, were traveling together on a bird-watching expedition when they were snatched at a FARC roadblock about 35 miles outside Bogota on March 23.

The FARC maintains that Fiori was released in early April. But Shen, a 35-year-old research scientist, said his fellow New Yorker actually escaped.

"Anybody who could have gotten away should have done so," said Shen, who also said he and the other Americans were handcuffed at night.

"Being held hostage is a crime against humanity; it's a violation of human rights," he said. "And after this you can fully understand the importance of that right."

Both Shen and Mark said they feared for Fiori's life after he bolted to freedom, because they were constantly led to believe that they would be shot if caught trying to flee.

The Soviet-inspired FARC, Colombia's largest and oldest guerrilla army, carries out kidnappings to fund its war effort.

The release of Shen and Mark, along with that of Augustine _ who was badly injured in a fall during her captivity _ came after Colombia media agreed to broadcast a six-point FARC communique denouncing what it described as a long history of U.S. intervention in Colombia's guerrilla war.