BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) – Leftist rebels have freed a Spanish correspondent and two other journalists who went missing in a lawless region of Colombia, ending a weeklong saga that recalled some of the darkest days of a long-running conflict the South American nation is trying to move beyond.
"Thank you to everyone who prayed for me," Salud Hernandez-Mora, a longtime correspondent for Spain's El Mundo newspaper, said Friday in her first comment upon being freed.
Rebels identifying themselves as members of the National Liberation Army, or ELN, handed her over to a delegation led by Ramon Catholic clergy in the volatile Catatumbo region. Hours later, two other journalists from Colombian network RCN were also freed by the rebels.
Hernandez-Mora said she was working on a story about coca growers when, while on a lonely street, she was approached by a man on a motorcycle who took her equipment. He identified himself as a member of the ELN.
Later she was invited to retrieve her belongings and went in search of the guerrillas on the back of a motorcycle. She said she was aware of the risks but thought it might result in an interview with a rebel commander. When she crossed paths with the rebels she was informed she was going to stay with them for a couple days and said she knew right away that she was being taken hostage.
"I've always been imprudent, because a reporter needs to be imprudent or they'll miss half the things," Hernandez-Mora said during an improvised press conference in the city of Ocana.
The incident shook Colombia because the ELN in March had agreed to join the much-larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and pursue a peace deal with President Juan Manuel Santos' government to end a half century of fighting.
Santos, who has demanded the ELN renounce kidnapping and free its captives in order for those talks to begin, celebrated Hernandez-Mora's release from Catatumbo, where he had traveled earlier Friday to personally oversee the search efforts for the journalists.
In addition to her work for El Mundo, Hernandez-Mora is one of Colombia's most-prominent columnists, admired and reviled in equal measure for her outspoken conservative views against Santos' peace efforts. Her disappearance last weekend while on assignment shocked Colombians who have experienced dramatic security gains in recent years as Colombia's half-century conflict winds down.
Hernandez-Mora was last seen May 21 arguing with an unidentified man and then taking a motorcycle to an unknown destination. The two journalists from the RCN network went missing 48 hours later while covering the search for the Spanish journalist.
The release Friday night of Diego D'Pablo and Carlos Melo came as loved ones were holding a religious vigil in their hometown of Cucuta. D'Pablo's adolescent daughter broke down in tears when she spoke live on TV for the first time with her father.
Hernandez-Mora said she was treated well by her captors. The biggest menace she faced during her captivity was boredom and the regular flyovers of army helicopters and intelligence aircraft — part of a huge military deployment to locate the journalists. She said her captors transferred her each night to a different location, including abandoned buildings and peasant homes.
"I spent the day looking at the sky, when there was a sky. And looking at the roof, when there was a roof," she said.
The Jamaica-sized Catatumbo region of northeastern Colombia is among the country's poorest, most marginalized backwaters. It is a major coca-growing area and a corridor for cocaine smuggling to Venezuela, with the state able to maintain only a few militarized strongholds.
In addition to the ELN, remnants of the Popular Liberation Army are still active in the area as is the much-larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
"Catatumbo is an area abandoned by the Colombian state, with tremendous social problems and I'm not sure how they're going to be resolved," Herandez-Mora said.