BOGOTA, Colombia – A top Colombian rebel commander has appeared in the southern hamlet where French journalist Romeo Langlois is due to be released and says the operation is running late.
Jairo Martinez blames heavy rains in recent days. He is regional coordinator for the southern bloc of The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
The delegation that is to receive the journalist arrived earlier than expected. It consists of the International Red Cross, a French diplomat and a Colombian ex-senator.
A public address system played rebel songs as hundreds of peasants of converged on the hamlet of San Isidro for Wednesday's planned handover.
Langlois fell into rebel hands April 28 while accompanying government troops on a cocaine lab-destruction mission.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
SAN ISIDRO, Colombia (AP) — Residents of this remote hamlet that lacks running water and electricity, and lives off cattle ranching and coca-growing were preparing a barbeque for Wednesday's planned handover of a French journalist by Colombia's main leftist rebel group.
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.
French journalist Romeo Langlois, 35, was taken by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia on April 28 when it attacked troops he was accompanying on a cocaine-lab eradication mission, killing three soldiers and a police officer.
He was wounded in the left arm but video images of him 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.
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.
He was to be delivered to a commission including the International Red Cross, former Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba and French government delegate Jean-Baptiste Chauvin, who arrived Tuesday night in the Caqueta state capital of Florencia.
Cordoba's Twitter site carried a message saying she had "full hopes that all goes perfectly today and we have Langois between 2 and 3 p.m."
In Paris, however, government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said Langlois' fate was discussed at a Cabinet meeting Wednesday and that "we do not have certainty that this handover will really happen today."
It's a roughly seven-hour drive from Florencia to San Isidro on rutted dirt roads that in the current rainy weather develop watery pits that can easily mire four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Reporters with international news organizations invited to cover the handover shared San Isidro's single, partially paved street on Tuesday with small groups of rebels, clad in olive green combat fatigues and carrying assault rifles. The rebels made small purchases at stores or stopped to chat with villagers.
They declined to provide details of the planned handover, saying they were not authorized to comment.
This region of southern Colombia is a stronghold of the FARC, as the rebels are known by their Spanish initials. 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 Wednesday's 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.
At mid-afternoon on Tuesday, a white Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter flew over San Isidro.
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, 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.
Independent journalist Karl Penhaul contributed to this report from San Isidro.