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Red Cross talking to Colombian rebels about release of U.S. captive

By Peter Murphy and Monica Garcia

BOGOTA (Reuters) - The International Committee of the Red Cross is talking to Colombia's FARC rebels about handing over a former U.S. marine seized by the Marxist group in a jungle region after he set out on a solitary trek despite police warnings about its dangers.

Kevin Scott Sutay, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, was captured on June 20 as he walked, apparently alone, toward El Retorno in Colombia's dangerous southeast, an area with little infrastructure and dense jungle canopy that provides cover for rebel fighters. The FARC has pledged to release Sutay.

A police source told Reuters that Sutay was thoroughly warned by the police command of San Jose del Guaviare, about 278 km (173 miles) from the capital, Bogota, of the risks posed by the trip he discussed openly. Sutay planned to travel to the hamlet of El Retorno by navigating through the jungle with a GPS device and survival skills learned in the military.

The FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, posted details of Sutay's passport in a statement on Friday, describing him as a mine clearance expert from New York. The U.S. government confirmed he was a citizen and said he was a tourist in Colombia with no current ties to the armed forces.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was also in contact with the Colombian government, the U.S. embassy in Bogota and Piedad Cordoba, a left-wing former senator who has been involved in several high-profile captive releases at the FARC's request.

The FARC began as a communist agrarian movement in 1964 and has fought the government ever since in what is now Latin America's longest-running insurgency. It has said it intends to release Sutay as a gesture of goodwill amid peace talks with the government hosted by Cuba that have been under way since last November.

"At the moment we are making contact but there is nothing more concrete to say," said Colombia-based Red Cross spokesman Edgar Alfonso, who added that the organization would only give further details about Sutay's release once it had taken place.

The police command in San Jose del Guaviare told Sutay that the area was considered a "red zone" because of the rebel presence and asked him to sign a document written in English which acknowledged the risks of the journey he was intent upon making, after which he set off, the source said.

People who had seen Sutay questioned whether he was in a sound state of mind, the police source said. He also apparently left without paying his bill at the hotel where he had been staying in San Jose del Guaviare, the source said. Reuters could not immediately confirm whether he had paid his hotel bill.

Even though the 8,000-strong FARC has been weakened by a decade-long U.S.-backed offensive, last month's kidnapping, in tandem with a weekend of heavy military losses, prove the group is still a force to be reckoned with.

Nineteen soldiers were killed in two separate clashes with the FARC on Saturday, the deadliest of which was in Arauca province near the Venezuelan border, where rebels attacked soldiers guarding an oil pipeline under construction. Four troops were killed in a separate attack in the south in which six FARC guerrillas were also killed.

(Reporting by Monica Garcia; Writing by Peter Murphy; Editing by Helen Murphy and Eric Walsh)

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