- Associated Press - Thursday, May 26, 2016

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) - Colombia’s government on Thursday blamed the country’s second-largest rebel group for the disappearance of three journalists in a lawless border region.

Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said intelligence reports “confirm with certainty” that the National Liberation Army, or ELN, was responsible for the journalists going missing.

He said a more than prudent amount of time had passed since they were last heard from and he insisted it was up to the guerrillas to assure their safe return.

“From this point on the responsibility for the safety and freedom of these three citizens is exclusively in their hands,” Villegas said.

The ELN, whose army of 1,500 guerrillas is fragmented, has not commented on the situation.

Salud Hernandez-Mora, a correspondent for the Spanish newspaper El Mundo and one of Colombia’s most-read columnists, disappeared over the weekend while on assignment in the volatile Catatumbo region on the border with Venezuela. She was last seen arguing with an unidentified man and then taking a motorcycle to an unknown destination. Two journalists from the RCN network went missing Monday later while covering the search for the Spanish journalist.

On Wednesday, President Juan Manuel Santos held out the possibility that Henandez-Mora might have chosen to report from inside of a rebel camp and simply hadn’t returned.

But Villegas’ comments were likely to ratchet up concern that the three journalists were being held against their will and put pressure on Santos to break off a peace process with the Cuban revolution-inspired ELN. After holding out for years, the ELN announced in March that it was joining the much larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in formal talks with the government aimed at ending the country’s half-century conflict.

But unlike the FARC, which has demonstrated repeatedly its interest in leaving behind the battlefield, the more ideologically radical ELN has been more defiant, even snubbing Santos’ insistence that it renounce kidnapping and return all captives in order for the talks to officially begin.

“With every hour that passes the political value of these kidnappings increases because the ELN mistakenly believes they can force the government on its knees and impose negotiating conditions with a captive of such stature,” said Alejandro Reyes, a columnist for the newspaper El Espectador.

“My biggest fear is that the saga of Ingrid Betancourt could be repeated,” Reyes added, referring to the former presidential candidate who was held hostage six years by the FARC until her rescue in 2008.

Santos’ government later issued a statement calling for the journalists’ immediate release.

“In a country that today is moving toward a stable and enduring peace, it’s unacceptable that these attacks against society continue to take place,” Frank Pearl, the chief negotiator for the peace process with the ELN, said in the statement.

An extensive search led by the army has produced few leads on the missing journalists. The government requested the involvement of the International Committee of the Red Cross but the humanitarian group said it had not been contacted by the rebels or any other group.

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 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 FARC.

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Joshua Goodman is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjoshgoodman . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/joshua-goodman .

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