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Colombia31 January 2003

Los Angeles Times journalists should be freed today

The ELN guerrillas said on 30 January that their two journalist hostages would be handed over today to a humanitaran committee, which they asked to be set up. The committee, which was immediately formed, comprises Mgr Arcadio Bernal (Bishop of Arauca), Fr Darío Echeverry (a priest), Eduardo Cifuentes (the ombudsman) and former prosecutor Jaime Bernal Cuéllar. The ELN said the journalists’ release only depended on when the committee arrived in the area.

01/29/03 - Two Los Angeles Times journalists may be freed

The ELN called on 29 January for a humanitarian committee to be set up to arrange for the release of British journalist Ruth Morris and American photographer Scott Dalton and to enable "our version of everything happening in the region" to be given. It said they would be handed over to the committee.

The day before, ELN military commander Antonio García said the journalists would be freed in a day or two and said "the contacts made" would "help the journalists understand our version of the Colombian conflict." However in another statement the same day, the ELN said "political and military conditions to free the journalists are not yet right."

01/24/03 - Two Los Angeles Times journalists kidnapped by guerrillas

Reporters Without Borders today denounced as a "serious attack on press freedom" the kidnapping by Colombian guerrillas of two freelance journalists on assignment for the Los Angeles Times and called on the country’s warring armed groups to stop abusing journalists and the media.

Reporter Ruth Morris, who is British, and US photographer Scott Dalton were seized by the National Liberation Army (ELN) on 21 January near the village of Tame, in the government-declared "rehabilitation zone" in the eastern province of Arauca.

"Such kidnapping of foreign journalists is deplorable and the armed groups must stop targeting journalists, local or foreign, and trying to control the media," said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard. It was "vital," he said, that the government "ensures the safety of journalists in the current upsurge of violence and thereby the freedom of all Colombians be to be informed."

An ELN statement, broadcast by the clandestine radio station Voz de la Libertad on 23 January, said the two journalists had been kidnapped because they had gone into an ELN-controlled zone without permission. It said they had not sought to interview local guerrilla leaders but would be held in safety and freed "when political and military conditions permit."

The Los Angeles Times bureau chief in Bogota, Thomas Miller, had denied on 22 January that they had been kidnapped as police had said. The pair were on assignment for the paper to cover deployment in the area of 60 US Special Forces troops officially training Colombian army units, he said.

The taxi driver who was with them said after his release by the guerrillas on 22 January that they had been stopped at an ELN roadblock and had then asked to meet with a guerrilla leader. The guerrillas said they would free them after they made a statement to the international media, he added.

The kidnapping came as the Inter-American Press Association on 23 January called Colombia the world’s most dangerous country for journalists, with 114 killed there since 1989.

It also followed the 18 January detention of three US journalists on the northern border with Panama by members of the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) during clashes between the AUC and guerrillas of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC).

AUC leader Carlos Castaño said they had not been kidnapped but simply held to protect them from the fighting and would be handed over to a humanitarian organisation. This was done on 23 January, when they were delivered to International Red Cross officials.

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