French reporter's release enables rebel propaganda

FERNANDO VERGARA and FRANK BAJAK
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French journalist Romeo Langlois, center, is escorted by rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, upon their arrival to San Isidro, southern Colombia, Wednesday, May 30, 2012. Langlois , who was taken by rebels on April 28 when they attacked troops he was accompanying on a cocaine-lab eradication mission, was handed over by the rebels to a delegation that included a French diplomat in San Isidro. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

SAN ISIDRO, Colombia (AP) — A French journalist freed by leftist rebels Wednesday said he had no complaints about his captivity other than its 33-day duration and lamenting that it is only the poor who die in Colombia's "invisible conflict"

Romeo Langlois said he was not embittered, but he criticized the rebels for using his capture for propaganda purposes. They freed him on their movement's 48th anniversary on a specially built stage in this remote southern hamlet, hanging banners expressing a desire for peace and drawing a crowd with a barbecue.

But the rebels and the townspeople they convened in this longtime guerrilla stronghold for the handover to a humanitarian commission applauded vigorously when Langlois said he appreciated how the guerrillas "live in the mud and risk their lives."

"They never tied me up," Langlois, 35, said of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. "Rather, they always treated me as a guest. They gave me good food ... They were always respectful."

Langlos looked relaxed and smiled, appearing unbothered by the wound to his left arm suffered during an April 28 attack by rebels on the soldiers he was accompanying on a mission to destroy cocaine laboratories.

He was asked after rebels delivered him in a green Toyota Land Cruiser what he took from his captivity, which occurred just a few miles away.

"I didn't need this experience to know the Colombian conflict or to know the rebels. I've been in this a long time," said Langlois, who has been reporting on it for more than a decade for France24 television and the newspaper Le Figaro.

"What I take from it is the conviction that one must continue covering this conflict," Langlois added.

It was not immediately known if Langlois, a bachelor, would fly to France to be reunited with his parents.

He made no apologies for accompanying the military. The FARC, as the rebels are known by their Spanish initials, had criticized him in an early May communique as lending himself to government propaganda by doing so.

"I hope the army doesn't stop taking people to conflict zones, and let's hope the rebels also take journalists with them to show the daily life of their combatants because this conflict isn't being covered," Langlois said.

Three soldiers and a police officer were killed in the morning-long firefight that saw Langlois captured. A guerrilla commander told independent journalist Karl Penhaul last week that Langlois was lucky, saying an AK-47 bullet entered his left arm above the elbow and exited the forearm without damaging bone or cartilage.

Langlois said he watched a sergeant die, just a meter away, during the battle.

Before fleeing toward the rebels, the journalist shed his helmet and body armor that the military had provided. The insurgents later said they took him prisoner because he was wearing military garb and they couldn't tell he was a civilian.

The delegation that received Langlois included French diplomat Jean-Baptiste Chauvin, former Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba and the Red Cross country chief, Jordi Raich. It arrived on rutted dirt roads from the state capital of Florencia in two Red Cross vehicles and lunched with the rebels and Langlois on chicken and rice after the handover ceremony.

Residents of San Isidro, which lacks running water and electricity and lives off cattle and coca, slaughtered six calves for the occasion, and rebel commanders gave brief speeches, expressing their desire for peace.

Langlois, who recorded the events with a small video camera, said in a brief speech from the stage that he lamented that "we are at a point at which this conflict has become invisible."

It is a war in which there are "neither good nor bad," and in which "the poor are killing the poor," he said.

Before the handover, a public address system played FARC revolutionary songs as hundreds of farmers converged on the hamlet. Theirs is a region of deep jungles, fast-moving rivers and villages that appear on no maps. Communal leaders complained of the state's absence: the lack of health care and poor roads that prevent them from getting their crops to market.

Langlois won applause when he expressed his understanding for why people "cultivate their little bit of coca so they can buy bread and notebooks for their children."

Political analyst Alejandro Vargas called Wednesday's event remarkable because Colombians see the FARC so rarely these days, the U.S.-backed military having increasingly driven the rebels into the country's backwaters and across the border into Venezuela and Ecuador.

"I would think that for the average citizen it doesn't have much relevance," he said. "In an armed conflict both parties take whatever opportunity they can to make propaganda and demean the other."

The government of President Juan Manuel Santos, who had from the start demanded Langlois' release, did not immediately comment.

But Santos' predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, was among Colombians expressing displeasure with the rebel spectacle.

"Langlois, what were you doing in Colombia," he said via Twitter. "What relation to you have with the FARC? Some of us know that you know how to deceive."

During Langlois' captivity, Uribe had called him "rude" and complained about his aggressive questioning.

Colombia's government suspended military operations in the handover zone for a 48-hour period that ends at 6 p.m. Thursday.

San Isidro's village council leader, German Pena, told The Associated Press before the ceremony that "war is something we experience almost every day."

"There have been innumerable battles in this area," he said. "They think we're part of the guerrilla forces just because we live in this region and for that reason they target us sometimes."

The government says the FARC funds itself largely through the cocaine trade. It has an estimated 9,000 fighters, and recently stepped up hit-and-run attacks on soldiers and police after suffering years of setbacks.

Langlois' capture followed the rebels' February announcement that they were ending ransom kidnapping as a good-faith gesture in hopes of launching peace talks.

Last month, they released what they called their last "political prisoners," 10 soldiers and police officers held for as long as 14 years.

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Associated Press writer Fernando Vergara reported this story from San Isidro and Frank Bajak reported from Bogota, Colombia. Independent journalist Karl Penhaul in San Isidro and AP writer Vivian Sequera in Bogota contributed to this report.