By Patrick Markey
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Suspected FARC guerrillas have captured 23 Colombian oil contractors carrying out exploration work for Canada's Talisman Energy in a rare mass kidnapping, authorities said on Monday.
Colombia, Latin America's No. 4 oil producer, has recently enjoyed a boom in petroleum and mining investment as violence from its long war has subsided, but illegal armed groups remain a threat in remote areas where the state's presence is weak.
Vichada provincial governor, Juan Carlos Avila, said gunmen forced the contract workers out of the camp from where they were conducting work for Talisman, a partner of state oil company Ecopetrol.
"They entered the camp and forced the 23 to go with them into the jungles," Avila told Caracol radio, saying that all those kidnapped were Colombian nationals.
The Colombian army said the gunmen appeared to belong a local unit of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Latin America's oldest surviving rebel insurgency, which is now at its weakest in decades.
A spokeswoman for Talisman in Canada could not immediately comment on the incident. The Canadian company recently finished the purchase of BP operations in Colombia with Ecopetrol.
The FARC and illegal cocaine-trafficking gangs operate in Vichada province in the oil-rich flatlands of eastern Colombia near the Venezuelan frontier.
ARMED GROUPS STILL A RISK
Kidnappings have become rarer in Colombia as security has improved and the FARC has been battered by the loss of top commanders and desertions. But Monday's large-scale hostage-taking shows risks facing the oil and mining firms.
Companies are still targeted for extortion by armed groups and the FARC last year kidnapped five contractors near the frontier with Venezuela. Colombian troops rescued them four days later.
The rebels last month freed six hostage troops and local politicians as a humanitarian gesture. But they are still holding around 15 police and soldiers in secret jungle camps for political leverage.
The country's oil infrastructure has also recently been attacked. Last month the Cano Limon-Covenas pipeline was attacked and earlier the Transandino oil line was halted for a few days by a suspected rebel bomb.
Last month a coal rail line operated by the coal producer Cerrejon was also hit by a bomb in a second attack on the installation in a month.
Once written off as a failing state mired in drug violence, Colombia has enjoyed a sharp decline in bombings, kidnappings and attacks since 2002 when the government began a U.S.-backed security crackdown on armed groups.
Foreign direct investment grew more than five-fold as violence waned and, oil and mine companies moved into areas once considered off limits for exploration.
The FARC and cocaine-smuggling militias linked to former paramilitaries are still proving resilient in remote jungles, mountains and flatlands where the Colombian state has still to establish a strong foothold.
(Additional reporting by Nelson Bocanegra; Editing by Todd Eastham)