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Colombia's Defense Ministry said four members of the armed forces were killed, and five others and a French journalist are missing after an attack by Marxist rebels in the southern state of Caqueta.
The attack is likely to spoil what had been rising hopes for possible peace talks between the rebels and the government after the guerrillas earlier this month freed 10 military hostages in a "humanitarian gesture."
In a statement Saturday night, the Defense Ministry identified the missing French journalist as Romeo Langlois. It didn't indicate what new organization Langlois may have been working for, but Paris-based news outlet France24 said on its website that Langlois was working for France24 and said he also works for French newspaper Le Figaro.
The rebel attack near the remote town of La Montanita occurred while Colombia's military was on a counternarcotics mission to destroy cocaine laboratories hidden in the dense jungles. The statement said the army mission has already destroyed five cocaine labs prior to the attack.
The ministry blamed the attack on Colombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which has been waging war on Colombia's government since the 1960s.
The commander of Colombia's armed forces, Gen. Alejandro Navas, said in a Twitter message shortly after the attack that 15 soldiers were killed, but he later deleted the message.
The FARC once controlled large swaths of Colombia's rural areas, but a successful military offensive by the government over the last decade pushed them deep into the jungles. The government estimates that the insurgency currently has about 9,000 armed fighters, about half of what the group had 10 years ago.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Colombia as the 5th-most dangerous country in the world for journalists, after Iraq, Somalia, Philippines and Sri Lanka. It says, however, that deadly, anti-press violence in Colombia has "slowed considerably" in recent years.
The FARC earlier this month unconditionally freed a group of 10 military hostages, some of whom the rebels had been holding in jungle encampments for 14 years, a move that led to many calls for peace talks between the guerrillas and the government.
But while the rebels say they want to talk peace, Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos has consistently dismissed the possibility of any immediate negotiations. He says his government will only agree to sit down with the FARC if it releases all remaining kidnap victims and agree to a ceasefire.
Despite the FARC's reduced size in recent years, the group has shown over the past 12 months it is still capable of frequent, deadly attacks on the armed forces and other strategic targets, including Colombia's oil industry that includes many foreign companies.
A longtime oil producer in Colombia, California-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. (OXY), said Thursday its output in Colombia dropped 23% during the first three months of 2012, to 24,000 barrels a day of crude oil. It blamed the drop on "higher insurgent activity."
-By Dan Molinski, Dow Jones Newswires; 57-310-867-6542; firstname.lastname@example.org