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Journalist kidnapped in La Guajira while covering literacy group's activities; motives unknown; FARC deny responsibility

(FLIP/IFEX) - On the morning of 27 February 2008, an individual who identified himself as "Silfredo", spokesman for the 59th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), Colombia's largest and oldest guerrilla group, called Caracol Radio station in Riohacha, capital of the department of Guajira, and stated that the FARC were not holding Mario Alfonso Puello, a journalist kidnapped 10 days earlier in that area, in northern Colombia.

Caracol Radio Riohacha correspondent Albeiro Sánchez told FLIP that "Silfredo" said he had "checked with all of the leaders in the front, and none of them indicated they were holding either the journalist or his companions."

Guajira departmental government secretary José María Ballesteros told FLIP that investigations are being conducted, and that both the National Police's Anti-Kidnapping Unit (Gaula) and the Prosecutor General's Technical Investigation Body (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigación de la Fiscalía, CTI) were carrying out separate search operations in the area where the kidnapping took place.

Ballesteros added that preliminary evidence indicates that another person accompanying Puello - Aldo Brito Carrillo, rector of the National Open and Distance Learning University (Universidad Nacional Abierta y a Distancia,UNAD) - was the main target of the kidnapping. For this reason, for the moment it is not believed that the kidnapping was related to Puello's previous journalism work.

Puello, a journalist working for "En Línea con la noticia" news programme, broadcast by Radio Delfín radio station in Riohacha, was kidnapped on 17 February by a group as yet to be identified. The kidnapping took place when the journalist was traveling with several people from the UNAD's literacy programme for adult indigenous people, in which he also works. They were traveling on the Santa Marta-Riohacha highway when they were forced to stop by unidentified individuals who had set up an illegal checkpoint.

Puello and three others, included Brito, were obliged to get out of their vehicle, immediately taken prisoner and taken away by their captors on foot. Brito managed to escape when they had proceeded about 300 meters from the checkpoint.

According to Brito, the individuals were dressed in Army uniforms, and their weapons were not those customarily used by either the FARC or Colombia's other large guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberación Nacional, ELN).

The situation has become even more worrisome given that so far no illegal group has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, nor have the relatives of any of those kidnapped been contacted and asked to pay ransom.

The FARC, the ELN and the "Águilas Negras" paramilitary group are currently battling for control of the area.

Puello is a veteran journalist who usually covers community concerns and social issues. For that reason, he was working in the UNAD literacy programme, among other projects. The day of the kidnapping, he was on the trip in two capacities - as both a member of the UNAD programme, and at the same time, in order to cover, as a journalist, the day's literacy activities.

Puello has 10 children. The two other kidnap victims are Maicol Mendoza, a relative of the rector, and John Romero, the driver.

FLIP also contacted the National Police commander for Guajira, Colonel Carlos Alberto Zusunaga, who declined to comment on the incident, saying that the armed forces had agreed that Ballesteros would be the only person authorised to make comments.

FLIP will continue to investigate the incident, in order to determine if the kidnapping may have been motivated by Puello's journalism.

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