Abducted British reporter had strayed into rebel territory

By Jan McGirk
Saturday 25 January 2003 01:00

When the British reporter Ruth Morris slipped a hood over her head to be led away from her taxi by armed guerrillas in Colombia on Tuesday, it was all in a day's work.

She has been covering the country's brutal civil war for The Independent, BBC radio and other news outlets for nearly five years, and knows well the risks of abduction.

Morris and Scott Dalton, a Texan photographer, are being held by rebels after they were stopped south of Saravena in north-east Arauca state – one of Colombia's most violent regions – the National Liberation Army (ELN) said on Thursday.

They became victims, the ELN said, because they had strayed into rebel territory on a freelance assignment for the Los Angeles Times without proper permits.

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

The rebels said they were "prepared to guarantee the lives and security of these journalists" and placed no conditions on their release.

The American and British embassies in Bogota are monitoring the situation. US troops are in the area, training local soldiers to protect against frequent rebel attacks on oil pipelines used by the Los Angeles petroleum corporation, Occidental, as well as the Colombian national oil company. The US has approved military advisers to fight the guerrillas and the first soldiers arrived last week.

According to the journalists' cab driver, who was released after a night in rebel camp, Morris and Dalton were abducted at a roadblock between the towns of Tame and Saravena, near an army base where US special forces will soon be based. Their mobile phones are out of range.

The ELN has kidnapped planeloads of civilians and an entire church congregation in Cali, but later released most of their captives unharmed. Other victims have been held incommunicado for months while ransoms were negotiated.

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