Delegates arrive for French reporter's release

FERNANDO VERGARA
Associated Press
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A man shakes hands with guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who manage a roadblock in San Isidro in southern Colombia, Wednesday, May 30, 2012. Journalist Romeo Langlois, who was taken by rebels on April 28 when they attacked troops he was accompanying on a cocaine-lab eradication mission, is expected to be handed over by the rebels to a delegation that includes another French journalist in San Isidro. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

SAN ISIDRO, Colombia (AP) — A delegation in International Red Cross vehicles arrived Wednesday at a remote southern Colombian hamlet to receive a French journalist held by leftist rebels for a month after being trapped in a firefight.

The group includes French diplomat Jean-Baptiste Chauvin, former Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba and the Red Cross country chief, Jordi Raich.

Romeo Langlois, 35, was taken by rebels on April 28 when they attacked troops he was accompanying on a cocaine-lab eradication mission. Three soldiers and a police officer died and Langlois had a bullet pass through his left arm.

The delegation pulled up to a guerrilla roadblock at midmorning just outside San Isidro in two Toyota Land Cruisers with Red Cross markings. There was no sign yet of Langlois or leftist rebel commanders. About two dozen guerrillas patrolled the streets.

At the roadblock, young rebels of both sexes handed out fliers marking the 48th anniversary, which was Sunday, of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which is known by its Spanish initials FARC.

Residents of San Isidro, which lacks running water and electricity and lives off cattle ranching and coca growing, were preparing a barbeque for the planned handover.

Village council leader German Pena said more than 1,000 people were expected for the event, for which villagers slaughtered six calves and built a wooden platform with fresh cut logs and planks.

Video images of Langlois said to have been taken the day of his capture and broadcast Monday as a first proof of life showed him looking relaxed as his arm was sutured and a female guerrilla asked him questions. In separate video taken last week, a guerrilla commander says Langlois was luck: an AK-47 bullet entered the arm above the elbow and exited the forearm without damaging bone or cartilage.

Langlois has covered Colombia for more than a decade and was on assignment for France24 television. He has also contributed to the newspaper Le Figaro.

It took the delegation about 4 ½ hours to drive from the state capital of Florencia to San Isidro on rutted dirt roads.

"It was a little rock and roll. It was a little difficult but very beautiful," Chauvin told reporters invited to cover the handover, who shared San Isidro's single, partially paved street with small groups of rebels, clad in olive green combat fatigues and carrying assault rifles.

This region of southern Colombia is a traditional FARC stronghold. It is laced with deep jungles, coca plots, fast-moving rivers and villages that appear on no maps.

"War is something we experience almost every day," said Pena. "There have been innumerable battles in this area. We've seen bullets flying on the main street of the village."

The hamlet of about 100 families is 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the larger village of Union Peneya, administrative center of a municipality near where Langlois was captured.

Some of the villagers doing the communal preparation for the handover expressed fears they could be targeted by the army for reprisal, accused of collaborating with the guerrillas.

"They think we're part of the guerrilla forces just because we live in this region and for that reason they target us sometimes," said Pena.

Colombia's defense minister, Juan Carlos Pinzon, said the military would suspend operations in the zone for 48 hours beginning Tuesday at 6 p.m.

The FARC, which took up arms in 1964 and which authorities say funds itself largely through the cocaine trade, has an estimated 9,000 fighters. It has recently stepped up hit-and-run attacks on soldiers and police after suffering years of setbacks from Colombia's U.S.-backed military.

The rebels announced in February that they were ending ransom kidnapping as a good-faith gesture made in hopes of launching peace talks.

The FARC released last month what it called its last "political prisoners," 10 soldiers and police it had held for as long as 14 years.

The rebels said in a communique on May 6 that they took Langlois prisoner in part because he was wearing military garb.

The journalist was wearing a bullet proof vest and helmet issued by the military, Pinzon has said, adding that he discarded them during the morning-long firefight with the guerrillas.

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Independent journalist Karl Penhaul contributed to this report from San Isidro.