The fate of a French journalist was uncertain Monday after leftist guerrillas in Colombia said they will only free him if the press holds a "wide-ranging debate" on the insurgency, Latin America's oldest.
Silent until now on the case of reporter Romeo Langlois, the leadership of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) highlighted that he was wearing a Colombian army uniform when he was captured April 28 in the course of a firefight, and called him a "prisoner of war."
"We think the minimum we would need for him to fully regain his freedom of movement would be the opening of a large national and international debate on freedom of information," the guerrillas said in a statement released to several media organizations.
Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon chastised the guerrillas for taking part in a "media exercise" at the reporter's expense. "If they are holding him, they should free him immediately, without delay or doubt," he said.
Langlois, a reporter for global television network France 24, had been accompanying soldiers who destroyed five cocaine production labs in southern Colombia when the firefight broke out.
He was wearing a Colombian army helmet and bullet-proof vest, which he shed before surrendering to the guerrillas, declaring he was a civilian, according to the authorities.
The 35-year-old is believed to have suffered a bullet wound to his left arm. Four military officers were killed in the clashes.
Dated May 3, the FARC statement was the first by the guerrillas' leadership since the French journalist went missing, and was tougher than expected.
It suggested Langlois had crossed a line by embedding with the Colombian military, condemning the practice.
"Journalists whom the Colombian armed forces take with them on their military operations do not serve the purpose of impartially reporting on reality, but rather manipulate it in the service of the war project against the Colombian people," the statement said.
"You have to wonder what would be the reaction of the Colombian authorities if a journalist, whose job it is to inform the public, was embedded with guerrilla units and was captured by the army after a battle."
A self-described FARC commander had taken a softer line in a video posted to YouTube on Sunday, saying the group was holding Langlois and expressing hope to "soon overcome this impasse."
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has urged FARC to release the journalist "as soon as possible," saying the Colombian government was prepared to help facilitate his liberation.
Former senator Piedad Cordoba, who has long negotiated with the FARC, says she is "confident" that Langlois will be released "very soon."
Press freedom activists also condemned the kidnapping.
"It is one thing to launch a necessary debate. But it's another to tie it to his freedom," FLIP press freedom group executive director Andres Morales told AFP.
Founded in 1964, the FARC is Colombia's oldest and largest guerrilla group with an estimated 9,000 fighters.