(Bloomberg) -- Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno confirmed that rebels killed two journalists of newspaper El Comercio and their driver, who had been held hostage since last month near the porous border with Colombia and said soldiers are sweeping the area to track down those responsible.
The journalists, reporter Javier Ortega and photographer Paul Rivas, on assignment for the Quito-based daily, were abducted with their driver Efrain Segarra on March 26 in Mataje, a village on Ecuador’s northwest border with Colombia. Moreno, who rushed home from a regional summit in Peru to deal with the incident, offered rewards for information that could lead to the rebels’ capture.
"These criminals seemingly never had the will to hand them over safe and sound," Moreno said in a national broadcast after an emergency cabinet meeting.
Moreno ordered special forces to try to locate the kidnappers who are alleged to be part of a dissident faction from Colombia’s FARC rebels led by alias "Guacho," to whom Ecuador and Colombia attribute the escalation of violence in Ecuador’s Esmeraldas province. The region suffers from high poverty levels, deforestation, and illegal mining, while the Colombian side of the border is a major cocaine-producing region.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos ordered his country’s armed forces to cooperate and help in the operations.
The killing of journalists is rare in Ecuador which has seen the local press report on the Colombian civil war for decades but have rarely been targeted by the rebels. Most of the FARC demobilized last year, but splinter groups dedicated to drug trafficking have emerged in some regions.
Interior Minister Cesar Navas said earlier this week that the violence in the province, including a car bomb in January and the killing of four marines on patrol by a nail bomb in March, has escalated because the new Moreno administration had taken the threat of drug trafficking seriously and arrested leading members of the breakaway rebel group. In a video message leaked to Colombian media, Ortega, chained to his colleagues, had said his captors’ demands included an exchange for these three individuals.
Moreno blames his predecessor, Rafael Correa, for having abandoned the area to drug traffickers and has promised to beef up military and police presence despite Ecuador’s fiscal crisis. The government has also called for international aid and more state services in the area.
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