Bogota – Colombia's defense minister rejected on Tuesday the conditions set by leftist FARC rebels for releasing a French journalist the guerrillas captured last month after a battle with security forces.
"This criminal organization cannot impose conditions of any kind. The government cannot debate with criminals," Juan Carlos Pinzon told reporters in Bogota.
Romeo Langlois, a correspondent for France 24 television and Paris daily Le Figaro, went missing March 28 amid fighting between rebels and soldiers in the jungles of the southern province of Caqueta.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said it is prepared to release the Frenchman only in the context of a debate on the role of the press in covering the Andean nation's decades-long armed conflict.
Besides dismissing the rebels' demand, Pinzon disclosed that before accompanying the military unit on the mission in Caqueta, Langlois signed a document relieving the Colombian armed forces of responsibility for any harm that might befall him.
Colombian authorities have been in constant contact with their French counterparts since the journalist went missing, the defense minister said.
The safe return of Langlois is important to both governments, "and that's why we are not planning rescue operations," Pinzon said.
The guerrillas' conditional offer to free the Frenchman was included in a message posted Monday on the Web site of the Sweden-based alternative news agency Anncol, a frequent conduit for communications from the FARC.
"Romeo Langlois wore regular-army military garb in the middle of a battle. We believe the least that can be expected for the full recovery of his freedom is the opening of a broad national and international debate on the freedom of information," the FARC said.
"The journalists the Colombian armed forces bring on their military operations do not fulfill the impartial proposition of reporting about reality, but rather that of manipulating," the insurgent high command said.
Amnesty International and the Inter American Press Association responded to the FARC's statement by insisting the rebels release Langlois without conditions, and the Committee to Protect Journalists points out that international law requires belligerents to treat reporters as non-combatants.
Meanwhile, a Colombian journalist who fled to Australia three decades ago after being charged as an insurgent by a military court proposed an exchange of Langlois for the director of the Anncol agency, now a prisoner in Bogota.
The Anncol chief, Joaquin Perez, was arrested in Venezuela on an Interpol warrant and extradited to Colombia, where he is accused of maintaining ties to the FARC.
"We want to suggest an exchange of prisoners of war," Luis Ernesto Almario told Bogota's La W radio from Australia, speaking on behalf of the International Committee for Solidarity with Joaquin Perez.
Colombian prosecutors have yet to indict Perez, Almario noted, adding that neither he nor the Anncol director belongs to the FARC.
Founded in 1964, the FARC has suffered a series of reverses in recent years, but it still has an estimated 8,000 fighters and operates across a large swath of the Andean nation.