Rebels send mixed messages about release of two LA Times journalistsFour other Colombian journalists freed

Bogotá, Colombia, January 29, 2003—A top Colombian rebel commander said yesterday that two foreign journalists kidnapped by his fighters would be freed within days, while in a separate broadcast the rebels announced they wouldn’t release the hostages until the military halted operations in the zone where they were being held.

Scott Dalton, a photographer from Texas; and Ruth Morris, a British reporter who grew up in California, were abducted by rebels on January 21 while on assignment for The Los Angeles Times in the eastern department of Arauca. The National Liberation Army (ELN) announced two days later that it was holding them.

“They will be released in the next few days, in one or two days,” Antonio García, an ELN commander told RCN Radio on Tuesday, January 28. García added that he hopes the contact the journalists have had with the rebels will help people see the country’s long-running civil conflict from a different perspective, “logically from the ELN’s point of view.”

However, in a separate statement also delivered on Tuesday, the ELN said that until the government stops attacks in the region, “conditions won’t exist to hand over the journalists.” The communiqué was broadcast over the rebels’ clandestine “Voice of Liberty” radio station.

Morris, 35, also offered a statement over the rebel-controlled radio station. “We are in good health, but we are very worried,” she said. The statement was given on January 27 and broadcast by RCN Televisión news on Tuesday.

The two journalists, both of whom have years of experience working in Colombia’s most violent regions, were abducted along with their hired driver. The driver was freed on January 22.

The conflict, nearly 40-years old, sets the ELN and a larger rebel army against the government and rival right-wing paramilitary groups. Nearly all of the paramilitary units declared a unilateral cease-fire in December 2002.

Meanwhile, fighters from the country’s largest rebel army freed four members of an RCN Televisión news crew and an independent journalist who were abducted on January 26 in Arauca while covering an explosion in the region that killed six soldiers and a civilian, an RCN Televisión spokeswoman said.

RCN correspondent Ramón Eduardo Martínez, cameraman Duarley Rafael Guerrero, technicians Mauricio Vega and Rubén Darío Peñuela, and free-lance photographer Carlos Julio García were abducted near the town of Tame by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Authorities blamed the FARC for Sunday’s deadly car bomb explosion.

Reports that the FARC stole the journalists’ equipment couldn’t immediately be confirmed.