Colombia's ELN rebels free two kidnapped Dutch reporters

Bogota (AFP) - Rebels with Colombia's National Liberation Army (ELN) group have freed two Dutch journalists snatched days ago in the country's northeast, officials said Saturday.

Colombia's ombudsman office, which handles human rights issues, wrote on Twitter that the rebel group freed reporter Derk Johannes Bolt, 62, and his cameraman Eugenio Ernest Marie Follender, 58, in a rural area of Norte de Santander state.

The office posted an accompanying photo purporting to show the pair, pictured with some of the rebels, along with Colombian human rights officials.

The news came after rebels issued what turned out to be an erroneous announcement earlier Friday stating that the two men, who were kidnapped on June 19, had been released.

Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders early Saturday confirmed that the journalists had been freed.

"Derk Bolt and Eugenio Follender were released today in the very dangerous region of Catatumbo in northern Colombia," he said, adding that the families of both men have been informed and that the ambassador has been able to speak with them.

"They are doing pretty well considering the circumstances," Koenders said.

"We've been in constant contact with the Colombian authorities who have worked hard on freeing them. I have a lot of appreciation and am grateful for their contribution," Koenders added.

"This is very good news. I am enormously pleased that this kidnapping has ended so quickly."

A short time later, the Dutch diplomat issued a followup statement, relating details from a brief conversation he was able to have with one of the journalists.

"Bolt was able to talk and very relieved. They are now facing a journey back through the jungle. We are putting everything in motion in order to bring them back to The Netherlands as quickly as possible," Koenders said.

Officials feared the high-profile kidnapping could disrupt peace talks between the ELN and the Colombian government.

The journalists work for Spoorloos, a program on Kro-Ncrv TV that helps Dutch people trace their biological relatives around the world.

"We are pleased and relieved that Derk Bolt and Eugenio Follender are free. We are grateful to everyone who has worked to release Derk and Eugenio. In particular, we thank the foreign ministry. They have really done everything in The Hague and in Colombia in order to bring this about," the news broadcaster said in a statement.

Like the families, we were very concerned about our close colleagues at KRO-NCRV. We are very happy that they can go home."

The editor at Spoorlos assured Dutch broadcaster NPO Radio 4 that there had been no ransom demanded.

"They were abducted by mistake. It does not appear to have been planned," Spoorloos editor Paul Vertegaal said.

"They seem to have been in the wrong place last Saturday."

The government of Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos and ELN opened peace talks on February 7 in Quito, Ecuador, after nearly four years of secret negotiations.

The ELN, with 1,500 fighters, is the last guerrilla group still active in Colombia.

The government is seeking a "complete peace" with the ELN after reaching a peace accord last year with the much larger FARC -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

The Colombian civil conflict erupted in 1964 when the FARC and ELN took up arms for rural land rights.

The fighting, which over the years drew in various rebel and paramilitary groups and drug gangs as well as state forces, has left at least 260,000 people dead, according to authorities.

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