BOGOTA (Reuters) - A French journalist reporting alongside Colombian security forces tracking drug-funded FARC rebels was injured and then disappeared after a gun battle that killed three soldiers and a police official, the Defence Ministry said on Sunday.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Romeo Langlois, a freelance reporter for French news channel France 24, was taken prisoner on Saturday by the Marxist guerrillas, but Colombia's Defence Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon couldn't confirm his capture.
Langlois went missing after being caught in a fire fight with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC. The fight broke out as police and military personnel sought to dismantle drug laboratories in the jungles of Caqueta, southern Colombia, Pinzon told reporters.
"We demand that the terrorist organization of the FARC, if they have him, must respect his life and they are responsible for anything that happens to him if they have him their power," he said.
Three soldiers and one police official died in Saturday's attack, the Colombian government said, and six security officials were injured. Langlois may have been shot in the arm, Pinzon said.
Five members of the counter-narcotics patrol originally reported missing with Langlois were found alive.
"The crisis centre (of the Foreign Ministry) has been mobilized and is liaising with Colombian authorities," Juppe told French media.
Langlois, who has been in Colombia about 12 years, removed his bulletproof vest and helmet and ran toward the rebels, possibly in a bid to prove he was not a member of the armed forces, said Pinzon after speaking to one of the soldiers with the journalist.
The FARC, dressed in civilian clothes, shot at the troops from nearby houses, Pinzon said. Heavy rains in the area made it difficult for reinforcements to immediately aid the troops.
No rebels were confirmed killed or captured.
Langlois's disappearance will refocus attention on the FARC after its release this month of 10 members of the armed forces who had been held hostage in jungle camps for more than a decade.
"At the moment, we can only say what we know," Pinzon said. "Anything else would be speculation. ... At the moment, he is disappeared."
DESTRUCTION OF LABS
The insurgent group, which has battled the government for almost 50 years, has made repeated gestures toward peace in recent months as a U.S.-backed offensive batters its front lines, halving its fighting force and killing top commanders.
President Juan Manuel Santos has said he remains open to peace talks only if they cease all attacks against civilian and military targets and stop kidnapping.
The group's leadership has pledged to stop taking hostages for ransom.
France 24 is working with the French Foreign Ministry and Colombian authorities to "obtain more information about the journalist's whereabouts," France 24 said in a statement.
"We know that it is a dangerous region," Nahida Nakad, head of its foreign audiovisual editorial operations, said in the statement. "We are, of course, concerned, but we trust Romeo, who knows the region well and has a lot of experience.
"We hope that he is safe and sound. We are in permanent contact with his family. The whole editorial department of France 24 is worried and has the family in their hearts."
The FARC, involved in the production of much of the world's cocaine, operates across Colombia but is strong in the south, where the soil and humidity are perfect for cultivation of coca, the raw material for cocaine.
Saturday's raid resulted in the destruction of five labs with weekly capacity to produce 400 kilos of coca paste, which is turned into cocaine.
The FARC, which has kidnapped thousands of civilians over the decades to help pay for weapons, food and uniforms, is classified as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.