By Eduardo Garcia and Luis Jaime Acosta
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia on Tuesday rejected a call by FARC rebels to debate freedom of information and news media bias as a condition for the release of a French reporter they hold hostage.
Heavily armed members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia kidnapped Romeo Langlois, a reporter for France 24, during a clash with troops carrying out an anti-drug raid in Caqueta, a rebel-stronghold in the south.
The group on Monday accused the Colombian government of manipulating journalists to bend public opinion against them and said that before they consider releasing Langlois there needs to be a debate on freedom of information.
"This criminal organization carries out terrorist attacks, is involved in drug trafficking, recruits underage kids and is involved in countless crimes, among them the execution of their own members. ... They cannot impose conditions of any kind," Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon told reporters.
"No way will we engage in any kind of debate. ... They must free him as soon as possible."
The FARC started as a Marxist peasant movement in the 1960s and later turned to kidnapping, extortion and drug trafficking. The European Union and the United States have labeled the FARC a terrorist group.
Faced with the choice of unemployment or grueling and tedious farm work, many youngsters in remote rural areas voluntarily join the FARC ranks every year, but rebels sometimes kidnap children and force them to join their armed struggle.
KIDNAPPED WHILE REPORTING
Langlois was reporting alongside Colombian troops on April 28 when he was taken hostage. Several rights organizations have called for his immediate release.
"Langlois must be released immediately without any conditions and measures should be taken to ensure that all journalists in Colombia can carry out their work freely," Amnesty International said in a statement on Tuesday.
In a video posted on YouTube on Sunday the FARC said it is holding Langlois hostage as "a prisoner of war."
"They can't call him a prisoner of war. ... He's a civilian, a citizen, a journalist. He was doing his job," Pinzon said.
In February the group said it would stop taking hostages for ransom to pay for weapons, uniforms or food. It did not say, however, that it would stop kidnapping for so-called political means to pressure the government.
(Writing by Eduardo Garcia; editing by Todd Eastham)