US Journalists Face New Risks Covering Colombia ; the Red Cross Is Unable to Make Contact with Rebels Who Have Been Holding Two Journalists since Last Tuesday

Article excerpt

Last week's kidnapping of two Western journalists in one of this country's most dangerous provinces was apparently not an accident of timing.

The abduction came just one week after US Green Berets arrived in the northeastern department of Arauca to help protect an oil pipeline partially run by Occidental Petroleum, based in Los Angeles. The 5,000-member leftist National Liberation Army (ELN), which claimed responsibility for the kidnappings, said that the journalists were taken in response to a new US policy that allows US troops to train their Colombian counterparts to fight guerrillas. Currently, American troops can only help combat drug traffickers.

Historically, foreign journalists in Colombia were treated as independent observers of the 39-year civil war that pits the government against left-wing rebel groups and right-wing paramilitaries. But with a greater US military presence in Colombia now, one former diplomat says that journalists may be the latest target of rebels opposing US support for Bogota.

"[The ELN's] hostility to the US and US companies has always been there," says Miles Frechette, US ambassador to Colombia from 1994 to 1997. "They've been after the US government for many, many years." Mr. Frechette speculates that the two journalists simply represented soft targets that could be used as leverage in discussions with the government.

Last Thursday, the ELN announced that they had taken Ruth Morris, a freelance reporter based in Bogota, who has written for The Christian Science Monitor, Time Magazine, and the Dow Jones News Service; and Scott Dalton, a freelance photographer who spent nine years with the Associated Press. Both were on assignment for the Los Angeles Times.

Mr. Dalton is a native of Conroe, Texas, while Ms. Morris holds British citizenship, but was raised in California. Apparently, the ELN mistook Morris for an American national in its radio broadcast.

In its statement, the ELN suggested that it was acting in self- defense.

"You must take into account that Arauca State has been declared a war zone by the American government and the Colombian state," said the guerrilla statement. "For that reason, the National Liberation Army is on war footing and is [acting] in the defense of the dignity of all the people of eastern Colombia."

The statement did not contain ransom demands, but instead said that Morris and Dalton would be freed "when the political and military conditions permit."

A Sunday editorial in the leading Colombian newspaper, El Tiempo, suggested that this could be a dangerous new tactic by guerrilla groups opposed to American intervention in the long Colombian conflict. "Does it mean that the ELN is getting ready to demand conditions from the government, using the two foreign journalists as pawns in some absurd political-military blackmail? If [so], the ELN would be opening a new step in violating human rights and inaugurating an attack without precedent against the liberty of the press," the paper noted. …