BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s FARC guerrillas freed French reporter Romeo Langlois on Wednesday, a month after taking him hostage in a firefight that showed the leftist group is still a menace despite a decade of military blows.
Langlois, the rebels’ highest-profile captive since French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, was taken hostage in the southern Caqueta region on April 28 after he was caught in crossfire between a Colombian military unit he was embedded with and heavily armed FARC rebels.
The 35-year-old walked with members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, who were dressed in camouflage, into a crowd of villagers, many of whom took pictures with their cellular phones.
“I was never tied up. They treated me rather like a guest. They gave me good food ... they were always very respectful,” the France 24 freelance journalist told reporters at the scene in a hamlet deep in the jungle.
“I can’t complain.”
The Red Cross issued a statement saying the reporter was in good health, despite a wound he suffered in his left arm during the initial crossfire.
Langlois berated the rebels for holding him for 33 days and urged the media to pay more attention to Latin America’s longest-running insurgency.
“There should be more journalists reporting with the guerrillas to show their day-to-day life,” he said, before blaming poverty and underdevelopment in remote rural areas for a civil conflict that has killed tens of thousands over the decades.
Some of Langlois’ comments were applauded by hundreds of villagers who came out to watch his release. The FARC operate in remote areas where lack of education and opportunities fuel support for the rebels.
The FARC has accused Colombia’s government of manipulating journalists to bend public opinion against them and had called for a debate on freedom of information as a condition for Langlois’ release.
In France, President Francois Hollande celebrated Langlois’ release as a moment of “joy” and “relief”. “My thoughts also go out to our other compatriots that are still held and for which the government is working to get released.”
France has seven other citizens held overseas, including six in the Sahel region of Africa and one intelligence officer in Somalia.
The last French citizen seized by the FARC was Betancourt, who was rescued by Colombian military in 2008 after six years in jungle captivity.
The FARC started as a Marxist peasant movement in the 1960s and later turned to kidnapping, extortion and drug smuggling to finance their insurgency. The European Union and United States have labeled the FARC a terrorist group.
A U.S.-funded military crackdown has weakened the rebels in recent years, prompting signs that they may be willing to engage in peace talks.
President Juan Manuel Santos has said he will not consider peace talks until the group ceases all attacks against military and civilian targets and frees all captives.
The FARC’s involvement in the cocaine trade, however, provides it with plenty of funds to stay strong in remote jungle areas and it has stepped up attacks in recent months.
The rebels are suspected of being behind a bomb attack earlier this month against former Interior Minister Fernando Londono in the capital, Bogota. Londono survived the blast, but his driver and a bodyguard were killed.
FARC guerrillas also killed 12 soldiers in an ambush on an army unit near the Venezuelan border last week, and they have carried out a string of bomb attacks against oil infrastructure.
Both sides are accused of rights abuses during the conflict. Soldiers allegedly killed civilians then dressed them as rebels to give the impression they were beating their enemies, and the FARC has kidnapped hundreds of civilians for ransom.
Additional reporting John Irish in Paris; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Paul Simao