Ecuador says two more kidnapped on Colombia border

Quito (AFP) –


Two more people have been kidnapped on the Colombia-Ecuador border by the same group responsible for the recent abductions and killing of two journalists and their driver, Ecuador said Tuesday.

The latest kidnappings were claimed in a video sent by the same dissident FARC rebels who claimed responsibility for the killing of the Ecuadoran news team, Interior Minister Cesar Navas said.

"Through the channel of communication we have with the so-called Guacho, we received information yesterday evening about a new kidnapping of two citizens," he said.

The latest victims were a middle-aged couple whose identities were not immediately clear, although the defense ministry confirmed that they were Ecuadoran.

Describing their abduction as some sort of "macabre game" by the rebels, Najas asked for help in identifying them. Until now, there have been no reports of anyone missing in the border area.

Guacho, who served as a rebel for 15 years in the now-defunct FARC movement, heads a group called the Oliver Sinisterra Front, which kidnapped the two journalists and their driver on March 26 as they were covering a story on violence in the Mataje area.

Their abduction and murder has badly shaken Ecuador, a country that until now has been unaccustomed to the drug-linked violence that has ravaged neighboring Colombia.

- 'Help us, Mr President' -

Navas said the video, which was sent via WhatsApp, showed a man and a woman in handcuffs, each with a rope around their neck, and flanked by armed men in military fatigues.

In it, they appeal to Ecuador's President Lenin Moreno not to allow them to suffer the same fate as the journalist team.

"Mr President, please help us, don't let what happened to us happen to the journalists -- we have children, we have families whom we visit in Ecuador... Give them what they want so that they release us," pleads the man.

Navas said it was the first time that a "proof of life" video had been sent directly to the government. Last time, when the kidnappers sent in footage of the journalists on April 3, it was sent to a Colombian TV station.

The latest abductions came as the rebel group suspended plans to hand over the bodies of the two journalists and their driver, who were confirmed dead on Friday.

As news of their deaths was confirmed, both Ecuador and Colombia sent troops to the border area to hunt down the killers, as Quito immediately began efforts to locate their bodies with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

- Return of the bodies suspended -

But on Monday, Guacho's rebels suspended the process over the ongoing military operation, citing a lack of security guarantees in a statement sent to the ICRC.

"We have taken the unanimous decision to suspend any type of humanitarian activity in relation to the handover of the journalists' bodies," it said.

In response, the Red Cross said it remained willing to facilitate the handover "provided that there is an agreement between the parties and that the necessary security conditions are in place on the ground."

Reporter Javier Ortega, 32, photographer Paul Rivas, 45, and their driver Efrain Segarra, 60, all worked for Ecuador's influential El Comercio newspaper and were following a story on drug-related violence when they were abducted from the border town of Mataje.

Experts say the northwestern border zone, which is covered with dense jungle and criss-crossed by rivers leading into the Pacific, has become a paradise for drug traffickers.