Latin America & Caribbean

Colombia conflict: ELN rebels free Dutch journalists

The freed journalists (second and third from left) with a delegation of the Colombian Ombudsman's Office Image copyright Defensoría del Pueblo de Colombia
Image caption The freed journalists (second and third from left) with a delegation of the Colombian Ombudsman's Office

Two Dutch journalists abducted last weekend by rebels in Colombia have been released after a day of conflicting reports about their fate.

Derk Bolt and Eugenio Follender were handed over to a delegation from the Colombian Ombudsman's Office, the agency confirmed in a tweet.

National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels said they had freed them on Friday but later retracted the announcement.

Fears were raised for peace talks between the rebels and the government.

Image copyright Defensoría del Pueblo de Colombia
Image caption The ELN fighters were heavily armed

However, the Dutch pair were finally handed over in a rural area of the Catatumbo region, near the border with Venezuela.

Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders welcomed the release as "very good news" and thanked the Colombian authorities for having worked hard to free the men.

Photos released by the Ombudsman's Office show the Dutchmen flanked by armed and masked ELN fighters before being transferred to its delegation.

The Colombian Ombudsman's Office, or Defensoría del Pueblo de Colombia, is a national government agency which oversees the protection of civil and human rights.

'It was quite heavy'

Television journalist Bolt, 62, and cameraman Follender, 58, had been on an assignment to search for the mother of a Colombian child adopted in the Netherlands when they were taken.

In an interview picked up by fellow Dutch journalist Edwin Koopman, Bolt told Colombian broadcaster Caracol Radio the rebels had given him a "very long" document containing points about the peace talks.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Protests have been held across Colombia this week to demand the release of the two Dutch journalists

He and Follender, he said, were both well apart from some minor cuts from bushes.

They had thought they were being robbed when they were kidnapped, he said. They were kept hidden in houses but one day they were made to walk for 14 hours to evade the army.

But the rebels had been respectful and never threatened to kill them, he told the radio.

"It was rather heavy," he said, "but the people accompanying us were quite nice."

"While our families at home feared for us, we were sitting drinking coffee with the guerrillas."

'Pleased and relieved'

Dutch broadcaster Kro-Ncrv TV, whose Spoorloos programme the journalists were working for, said it was "pleased and relieved" that Bolt and Follender were free.

"We are grateful to everyone who has worked to release Derk and Eugenio," it added in comments quoted by AFP news agency.

"In particular, we thank the foreign ministry. They have really done everything in The Hague and in Colombia in order to bring this about."

Last year the ELN kidnapped a Spanish journalist and several Colombians in the same area. All were later released.

The ELN is the second largest left-wing guerrilla group in Colombia, behind the Farc.

The Farc signed a peace deal with the government last November and are preparing to enter civilian life but the ELN only started peace talks in February this year.

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