* Rebels accuse government of manipulating the media
* French reporter seized while with Colombian troops
* President says reporter cannot be “prisoner of war” (Adds quote from Colombian president, details)
By Luis Jaime Acosta and Eduardo Garcia
BOGOTA, May 7 (Reuters) - Colombia’s leftist FARC rebels accused the government of manipulating journalists and demanded a debate on freedom of information Monday as a step that may lead to the release of a French reporter kidnapped nine days ago.
Romeo Langlois, a reporter for news channel France 24, was embedded with government troops carrying out an anti-drug raid when a firefight broke out with members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, who later took him hostage.
“The minimum thing that should happen before he recovers his freedom is a broad-ranging debate about freedom of information,” the FARC said in a statement, without specifying exactly what form the debate should take.
“The journalists that the armed forces carry with them ... do not comply with their duty to report impartially about reality, they manipulate (the facts).”
The rebels on Sunday issued a video statement confirming they are holding Langlois hostage as “a prisoner of war.”
The FARC, who are described as terrorists by the United States and the European Union, say Langlois wore army-issued clothes when he was taken hostage.
The government says he was wearing plain clothes and that he removed his bulletproof vest and helmet and ran toward the rebels to prove them that he was a civilian.
While the FARC has kidnapped thousands of people since it was created in 1964, in February the group said it would stop taking hostages for ransom to pay for weapons, uniforms or food.
It did not say, however, that it would stop kidnapping for so-called political means to pressure the government.
Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos again demanded Langlois’s rapid release.
“Journalists are not, and can never be, prisoners of war and for that’s why I hope they will release him soon,” Santos said during an official visit to Singapore before the FARC statement.
Meanwhile, a high-ranking army official said security forces have been ordered to cease operations against the FARC unit that is holding Langlois in the Caqueta region, a rebel stronghold in the south of the country.
Over the past five decades, the FARC has morphed from a Marxist group of peasant guerrillas into a multimillion dollar criminal group that funds its war with the government through kidnapping, extortion and drug trafficking.
While more than a decade of a U.S.-backed offensive has reduced its funding and halved its ranks, the group remains a formidable force, able to attack civilian and military targets as well as oil and mining projects.
Many journalists who cover Colombia’s conflict in the field end up traveling with the army to ease access and security concerns. (Writing by Eduardo Garcia; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Doina Chiacu)