Colombian Rebels Offer Journalists’ Release

By: Susannah A. Nesmith, Associated Press Writer

(AP) Colombian rebels said Wednesday they were prepared to hand over two kidnapped foreign journalists to a humanitarian commission but warned the army not to mount a rescue attempt.

Photographer Scott Dalton, 34, of Conroe, Texas, and reporter Ruth Morris, a Briton, were seized by the National Liberation Army, known as the ELN, on Jan. 21. The two were on assignment for the Los Angeles Times.

The rebels said Tuesday they would not free the pair until the Colombian military halted its attacks in Arauca state in eastern Colombia where the two were abducted.

On Wednesday, the rebels did not mention that demand, saying only that they would turn the two over to a humanitarian commission.

“The ELN is calling for a commission of the Inspector General’s office, the government human rights ombudsman, and the International Red Cross to come, so they can hear our version about events in the region and at the same time receive the journalists,” a rebel said over the ELN’s clandestine radio station in Arauca.

A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross told The Associated Press the agency doesn’t participate in commissions to maintain its neutrality.

The spokesman, Carlos Rios, said that the ICRC has been in contact with the rebel group on its own but no time has been set up for handing over the journalists.

The rebels said they could not guarantee the safety of the journalists if the Colombian army mounted a rescue attempt.

During the rebel broadcast, a thump similar to the sound made by a helicopter’s rotor blades was heard in the background. The sound was not explained, but the rebel making the broadcast indicated government troops were close.

The rebel said the commander of the Colombian Army’s elite Rapid Deployment force was “deaf” to the guerrillas’ warnings that no rescue be attempted.

The ELN, believed to number 3,500-5,000 combatants, was inspired by the Cuban revolution and began fighting in Colombia four decades ago.

In Arauca, the ELN and a larger rebel group have been fighting against illegal right-wing militias and government forces for control of the state’s oil-rich plains.

President Alvaro Uribe has made Arauca a centerpiece in his strategy to turn the tide in Colombia’s civil war.

Colombia’s war pits the 18,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the ELN against the government and the paramilitary groups. About 3,500 people, mainly civilians, die in the fighting each year.

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