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Journalist freed four months after abduction by guerrilla group

(FLIP/IFEX) - On 19 June 2008, at about 5:15 p.m. (local time), journalist Mario Alberto Puello was freed from captivity by members of the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberación Nacional, ELN) guerrilla group. ELN members handed Puello, who was abducted on 17 February in La Guajira department, over to International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) personnel.

Puello and two of his companions, Maikol Mendoza y Jhon Romero, were freed in the vicinity of the "El Puentecito" farm, near the department capital of Riohacha. The freed men were haggard due to the difficult conditions during the period of their captivity.

After being freed, Puello said he acknowledged the work carried out by the national army, commenting that he knew it had carried out operations aimed at achieving his release. "I know that the army did everything possible to rescue us, but the ELN knows the area very well," Puello said. He also thanked the Guajiran community for its solidarity during his captivity. Reasons for the kidnapping have never been given.

BACKGROUND:
Puello was kidnapped on 17 February when he was travelling as part of a group belonging to the National Open and Distance Learning University's (Universidad Nacional Abierta y a Distancia, UNAD) literacy programme for adult indigenous people. The vehicle he was in was travelling on the Santa Marta-Riohacha road when it was forced to stop by unidentified armed individuals who had set up an illegal road block.

Puello and three others, among them UNAD Rector Aldo Brito Carrillo, were forced out of their vehicle and the kidnappers made them start walking. After having gone 300 metres, Brito managed to escape after a struggle with one of his captors.

On 27 February, by way of a phone call to Caracol Radio in Riohacha, an individual who identified himself as "Silfredo", the spokeperson for the 59th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC), said that his guerrilla group was not holding Puello.

On the afternoon of 2 June, national army troops captured 22-year-old Manuel de Jesús Bonnet de la Rosa, a seven-year veteran of the ELN. Bonnet de la Rosa said that the kidnapped individuals were alive and were in the hands of the ELN's Domingo Barrios front. He also said that Puello and his companions were very thin due to the difficulties of obtaining provisions as a result of the high level of army operations in the area.

Puello often reports on community and social issues, which is why he was involved with the UNAD's literacy programme among other projects. On the day of the kidnapping, Puello was travelling as a member of the university's team and was also intending to cover the events as a journalist.

FLIP is pleased that Puello was freed and would like to emphasise the important role played by the ICRC. At the same time however, the organisation would like to remind the illegal armed groups in Colombia that journalists are civilians in the internal armed conflict and that the kidnapping of a journalist is not only a serious violation of freedom of expression but also a breach of international humanitarian law.

Updates the Puello case: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/94311

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