Missing journalists held captive by Colombia's ELN rebels: government

BOGOTA (Reuters) - The Colombian Marxist rebel group, the National Liberation Army, has kidnapped three journalists, including one from Spain, who disappeared in recent days near the border with Venezuela, government officials said on Thursday.

Colombian Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas talks during an interview with Reuters in Bogota, Colombia, May 18, 2016.REUTERS/John Vizcaino

The reporters vanished while working in El Tarra municipality in Norte de Santander, where the group, known as the ELN, earns money from illegal cocaine production in the lawless region about 400 km (250 miles) north of Bogota.

Spanish reporter Salud Hernandez, 59, who writes for Spain’s El Mundo and local newspapers, was the first of the three reporters to go missing. She was last seen climbing aboard a motorcycle taxi on Saturday while working on a story about the illegal drug trade.

Reporter Diego D’Pablos and cameraman Carlos Melo, from local television news channel Noticias RCN, went to the area to cover Hernandez’s disappearance before they themselves vanished on Tuesday.

Norte de Santander is a hub for cultivation of coca, the plant used to make cocaine. The ELN, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and crime gangs sometimes clash over drug routes and crops.

The government has been holding peace talks with the FARC since late 2012.

“Following confirmation by the Defense Ministry of the kidnapping of the three journalists ... the negotiating teams for talks with the ELN and the FARC energetically reject these occurrences and demand the immediate liberation of the journalists,” said Frank Pearl, head of the government negotiating team for the ELN talks, speaking from the presidential palace.

Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said earlier on Thursday that the ELN was “responsible for the disappearance” of the three journalists. He refrained from describing the events as kidnappings, in line with government comments all week.

Colombia and the ELN agreed in March to begin peace talks, but President Juan Manuel Santos said then that no official talks would begin until the group freed all hostages.

The 2,000-strong ELN has said an end to kidnapping would be part of peace negotiations.

Hernandez is known for opinion columns highly critical of Colombia’s insurgents, the Santos administration and the FARC talks.

Santos increased the troop presence and sent the heads of the army and national police to the area to direct search operations. He said finding the journalists was a government priority.

Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb and Helen Murphy; Editing by Helen Murphy and Peter Cooney