Journalist killed during firefight

New York, April 12, 2002—Two members of a television news crew were shot and killed while covering fighting on Thursday between the Colombian army and leftist rebels, CPJ has learned.

Héctor Sandoval, a cameraman with RCN Televisión, died early today. Wálter López, the crew’s driver, died on Thursday, said Rocío Arias, executive producer of RCN Televisión news.

“We are outraged by the deaths of Héctor Sandoval and his colleague Wálter López,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “We urge the government to do its utmost to protect journalists who are covering this crucial story.”

The news crew came under fire on April 11 around 1:45 p.m. in a mountainous region outside the southwestern city of Cali where the army was pursuing fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The rebels had just kidnapped 13 provincial lawmakers and four aides and were apparently seeking refuge when the army launched an operation to free the captives.

The journalists had decided to turn back when an army helicopter hovering above opened fire on their vehicle, said Juan Bautista Díaz, a free-lance photographer working for Semana newsmagazine. The letters “RCN” were marked in large, bright colors on the roof and both sides of the vehicle, according to both Arias and Bautista.

A bullet pierced the roof and tore through López’s arm and into his body. According to Bautista, he appeared to have died instantly, but they were trying to apply a tourniquet when the army helicopter resumed fire. They were forced to flee for cover in a nearby ravine, said Bautista.

The journalists then tried to signal the helicopter for help by waving white T-shirts in the air. Fifteen minutes after López was shot, a bullet from the helicopter ripped through Sandoval’s left leg, said Bautista.

Continued fighting forced Bautista, Sandoval, and RCN correspondent Luz Estela Arroyave to hide in the ravine for about two hours. Journalists from a local newspaper who had also come to cover the combat later took them to a local hospital.

The army has opened an investigation into the killings, said an army spokesman in Bogotá, the capital, who asked to remain anonymous.

The FARC later freed one of the lawmakers and four aides. Two soldiers have been killed during the ongoing rescue operation. The fighting came amid Colombia’s 38-year civil conflict, which sets two main guerrilla armies against a right-wing paramilitary group and the government.