BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he would not allow FARC rebels to make a media circus of the release of a U.S. citizen they captured last month after the group “flagrantly violated” a promise to end kidnappings before peace talks began.
In an irate address, Santos said he would deprive the FARC of any media benefit from the capture of Kevin Scott Sutay as he trekked across a dangerous jungle stretch of eastern Colombia. Santos also refused to allow former Senator Piedad Cordoba to participate in the handover.
The president did not specify what the media restrictions would be but it’s possible there will be no coverage of the release until Sutay returns to Bogota or a local airport.
The FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, said on Friday that as a gesture of goodwill it would free Sutay to Cordoba, a leftist politician who has been involved in numerous high-profile captive releases, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Santos’ refusal to allow Cordoba to head the mission, which the FARC had specifically requested, may complicate efforts to release Sutay, who defied police warnings not to venture cross-country alone. The government and FARC have been engaged in peace talks in Cuba since November.
The liberation of dozens of FARC captives over the years has drawn huge media interest, angering Santos as press coverage of the event often gives the insurgent group’s profile a boost on the international stage.
“These gentlemen of the FARC, violating in a flagrant way the commitment they made at the start of peace talks, are holding hostage a North American citizen - and they didn’t kidnap him before, they kidnapped him recently without any justification or reason.”
“Now they want to free him amid a media show and want the whole country and the world to thank them for their humanitarian gesture,” said Santos at the opening of Colombia Fashion Week in the western city of Medellin.
It was not immediately clear if the center-right president was referring to the violation of a pledge the FARC made in February 2012 to abandon the practice of kidnapping for ransom or some broader agreement that has not been made public.
The FARC on Friday declared Sutay, 26, a prisoner of war, implying that the former U.S. Marine could be a mercenary. The rebels maintain the right to take military targets as captives.
Even as the 8,000-strong guerrilla group has been weakened by a decade-long U.S.-backed offensive, last month’s kidnapping, in tandem with a weekend of heavy military losses in combat with the FARC, proves it is still a force to be reckoned with.
Sutay’s capture will also add to the climate of tension at the negotiating table in Cuba as the two sides try to hobble together a peace accord while they trade barbs over rebel backing of a rural protest that the FARC offered to arm.
“I want to tell them in a clear and convincing way that I will not permit even Piedad Cordoba or any official of any kind to go for the man who was kidnapped,”
“I will only allow the Red Cross, in a completely discreet way, to make the preparations and to facilitate the release of this man.”
Reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by Cynthia Osterman