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Costa Rica kidnap gang wants dollars 20m

SAN JOSE - One of 19 Costa Rican Supreme Court judges held hostage by a group known as the Death Command was released yesterday for health reasons, a government spokesman said. The freeing of Judge Jesus Ramirez, who was thought to have appendicitis, cut the number of hostages inside the Supreme Court building here to 23, including 18 judges and five court employees.

The release was the only break in a tense stand-off that began on Monday, when the armed band seized the hostages and made demands that included ransom of dollars 20m (pounds 12.6m) and safe passage out of the country.

Television quoted the gunmen's leader as saying in a telephone interview that the government had until mid-afternoon local time yesterday to meet their demands or they would blow up the building. 'They want an answer but we can't assure them we will have it,' a government spokesman said. President Rafael Calderon summoned a cabinet meeting to discuss the gunmen's demands. They have also said that after the first two demands are met, they will issue a list of prisoners to be freed from Costa Rican jails.

Local press reports said the gunmen were linked to Colombian cocaine barons and wanted the release of four Colombian drug traffickers captured last September as part of an international anti-drug operation.

Police said the attack was carried out by at least five heavily armed men. A court spokesman said the men, who are described as speaking with foreign accents, apparently broke into the building through the basement and seized the Supreme Court judges as they held a weekly meeting on Monday afternoon.