By Richard McColl
BOGOTÁ, Colombia (AA) - Three journalists missing in northeastern Colombia are being held hostage by the ELN guerrilla group, the country’s defense chief confirmed Thursday.
"Intelligence and information confirm that the ELN is responsible for the disappearance of these journalists," Luis Carlos Villegas said during a press conference.
Spanish journalist Salud Hernandez-Mora, who was investigating cultivations of coca plants in the region of Catatumbo in the department of Norte de Santander near the border with Venezuela, went missing Saturday.
Two other journalists, Diego D' Pablos and Carlos Melo, who were covering Hernandez-Mora’s disappearance were reported missing Monday.
Until Thursday, there had been no confirmation that the National Liberation Army (ELN), were responsible for the kidnapping.
"Our intelligence indicates that the northeastern front of the ELN is in charge of the journalists," said Villegas. "The responsibility of the integrity and freedom of these journalists lies directly with the ELN,” he added.
The ELN is Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group with approximately 2,000 combatants. The group has completed exploratory talks with the government regarding peace dialogues but no date has been set for the start of talks.
The kidnapping of the three journalists has received widespread condemnation, in particular from the El Tiempo newspaper -- Hernandez-Mora’s employer -- and from the European Union.
A strongly worded condemnation of the hostage-taking was published late Thursday by the national newspaper.
"El Tiempo profoundly rejects the ELN's attitude in holding Salud Hernandez and the other journalists. We demand their immediate and unconditional release, healthy and unharmed and as soon as possible to bring to an end this unacceptable violation of human rights and the expression of freedom."
The Eu’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, also weighed in. "It is of the utmost importance that we follow this situation closely, because it is not only of interest to the EU but to all journalists in general," she said in a statement.