May 23, 2016 / 1:17 PM / a year ago

Colombian authorities search for missing Spanish journalist

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian military and police forces are searching for a Spanish journalist who disappeared while reporting a story in Norte de Santander province, the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

Military sources and local media feared Salud Hernandez, 59, who has worked in the country for almost two decades, could be in the custody of Marxist rebels operating in the area but the Colombian government would not say whether the case was a kidnapping and called it a “possible disappearance.”

Hernandez, a journalist with Spain’s El Mundo and local newspapers, was last seen on Saturday in the town of El Tarra in the northeastern province, along the border with Venezuela, the ministry said in a statement on Sunday.

“I order priority and dedication from the armed forces in establishing where the journalist Salud Hernandez is,” President Juan Manuel Santos said from his Twitter account on Sunday.

Hernandez reportedly was working on a story on illegal drugs and had been in the area for about 20 days. She is known for opinion columns highly critical of Colombia’s insurgent groups.

Both the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) have presences in Norte de Santander. The ELN has continued taking people hostage even while it seeks to begin peace talks with the government.

The armed forces and the police are working with local authorities and intelligence officials to find Hernandez, the Defense Ministry statement said.

The country has been in peace talks with bigger rebel group the FARC since the end of 2012 and recently agreed to start negotiations with the ELN.

Santos has said no talks will begin until all ELN hostages are freed.

The 2,000-strong ELN has increased oil pipeline bombings in recent months and continued kidnappings in what many see as an attempt to pressure the government into beginning talks.

Inspired by Cuba’s 1959 revolution, the ELN has battled a dozen Colombian governments since it was founded by radical Catholic priests in 1964.

While many Colombians are suspicious of peace talks with both groups, they are tired of the violence that has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced millions over more than half a century.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Helen Murphy and Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Bill Trott

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