Quito (Ecuador), Apr 13 (AFP) Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno today confirmed the deaths of three members of a journalist team kidnapped by renegade Colombian rebels — and launched a retaliatory military operation in the area where they were snatched.

The three men were kidnapped on March 26 while covering a story on violence along the border with Colombia, where Ecuadoran forces have been battling Colombian guerrillas engaged in drug trafficking.

Announcing their deaths after the expiry of a tense 12-hour deadline for the kidnappers to prove the trio was still alive — or face a “forceful” response — Morales said he had ordered an operation in the area involving crack troops from the police and the army.

“Sadly, we have information confirming the murder of our fellow countrymen,” he told reporters in Quito, two hours after the ultimatum expired, warning the kidnappers of a forceful response if they didn’t comply.

“We have resumed … military and police operations in the strip of land by the border where they were previously suspended and I am immediately sending in a deployment of elite units from the army and the police,” he said.

A visibly emotional Moreno had issued the deadline late on Thursday after his government received photos from a Colombian TV station suggesting the team were dead.

Cutting short a trip to Lima where he had been due to attend the Americas summit, which begins on Friday, he hunkered down with his cabinet to handle the crisis.

But as the deadline passed, there was no immediate news on the fate of the team — reporter Javier Ortega, 32, photographer Paul Rivas, 45, and their driver Efrain Segarra, 60 — all of whom worked for the influential El Comercio newspaper.

“It appears that criminals never wanted to hand them back safe and sound, it’s very likely… that the only thing they wanted was to gain time,” Morales said of the kidnappers, guerrillas formerly affiliated with Colombia’s now-disbanded FARC rebels.

The murders drew a swift condemnation from Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who slammed “a deplorable act.” Just 12 hours earlier, there appeared to be still some hope the men were alive after experts were unable to confirm the authenticity of the grisly photographs apparently showing them dead.

“The clock starts clicking right now,” said Moreno as he landed at Quito airport late Thursday. “Failing that, we will act with all forcefulness … not hesitating to punish these violators of every human right.” The team was abducted while on assignment along the common border, where Ecuadoran security forces have come under attack by ex-FARC groups who still engage in drug trafficking.

On April 3, Colombia’s RCN television aired a 23-second video showing the trio wearing chains with locks around their necks, in what was the first proof of life.

One of the hostages appealed to Moreno to help secure their release.

The government had pledged to do everything to ensure their safe return.

In the video, the unidentified captors said they would release the hostages if Ecuador stopped helping Colombia fight the guerillas.

The journalists’ kidnapping has alarmed and unsettled Ecuador, where it was believed to be the first such abduction in three decades.

According to the Ecuadoran military, the dissident group believed to be behind the abduction is led by a rebel called “Guacho,” an Ecuadoran in his 30s who served as a rebel in the FARC for 15 years, specializing in explosives, drug smuggling and financing.

The group is thought to number 70 to 80 people and is involved in cross-border drug trafficking through the jungle, in the remote Ecuador-Colombia border region where the FARC was long active.

A 2016 pact between the Colombian government and the FARC ended half a century of armed conflict, saw 7,000 rebels disarmed and the ex-rebels transform into a political party.

However, some 1,100 guerrillas broke away from the agreement, primarily to pursue drug trafficking and illegal mining, according to the Colombian government and independent research centers. (AFP) CPS CPS

This is published unedited from the PTI feed.