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Ecuador ‘proof of life’ deadline expires for abducted reporters

April 13, 2018

A 12-hour deadline set by Ecuador for renegade Colombian rebels to either prove a team of kidnapped journalists were still alive or face a forceful response expired on Friday, as fears grew that the three men had been killed.

The ultimatum was issued late Thursday by President Lenin Moreno, who gave the kidnappers until 1550 GMT to offer information after his government received photos from a Colombian TV station suggesting the three-man team, all Ecuadorans, were dead.

But as the deadline passed, there was no immediate news on the fate of the team from the influential Ecuadoran newspaper El Comercio, who were kidnapped on March 26 by rogue forces affiliated with Colombia’s recently-disbanded FARC rebels.

“The clock starts clicking right now,” said Moreno, who was close to tears as he landed at Quito airport late Thursday, cutting short a visit to Lima for the Summit of the Americas, which begins Friday.

“Failing that, we will act with all forcefulness … not hesitating to punish these violators of every human right.”

Ecuadoran experts examined the photos of the three men — reporter Javier Ortega, 32; photographer Paul Rivas, 45; and their driver Efrain Segarra, 60 — but were unable to confirm their authenticity.

The team was abducted while on assignment along the common border, where Ecuadoran security forces have come under attack by former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who still engage in drug trafficking.

Moreno was already in Lima when the grisly photographs emerged, prompting him to urgently return to Quito to handle the crisis.

– ‘Stop helping Colombia’ –

On April 3, Colombia’s RCN television aired a 23-second video showing the trio wearing chains with locks around their necks, in what was the first proof of life.

One of the hostages appealed to Moreno to help secure their release.

In response, the government pledged to do “everything possible and impossible so that they return safe and sound,” a presidential spokesman said.

In the video, the unidentified captors said they would release the hostages if Ecuador stopped helping Colombia fight the insurgents.

The journalists’ kidnapping has alarmed and unsettled Ecuador, with media saying it was the first such abduction in the country in three decades.

As the latest deadline loomed, Moreno huddled in crisis talks with his cabinet as a top-level delegation was flying over from Bogota, led by Colombian Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas, who was accompanied by top military and police officials.

Both Moreno and his Colombian counterpart Juan Manuel Santos had agreed to wait for contact from the kidnappers before taking “forceful” action.

Ecuador’s Communications Minister Andres Michelena said the delegation would be involved in preparing “joint operations,” without giving further details.

– Who are the kidnappers? –

According to the Ecuadoran military, the dissident group believed to be behind the abduction is led by a rebel called “Guacho,” an Ecuadoran in his 30s who had served as a rebel in the FARC for 15 years, specializing in explosives, drug smuggling and financing.

The group is thought to number 70 to 80 people and is involved in cross-border drug trafficking through the jungle.

A 2016 pact between the Colombian government and the FARC ended half a century of armed conflict, saw 7,000 rebels disarmed and the ex-rebels transform into a political party.

However, some 1,100 guerrillas broke away from the agreement, primarily to pursue drug trafficking and illegal mining, according to the Colombian government and independent research centers.

The FARC has long been active in the remote Ecuador-Colombia border region.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.