Ecuador’s president has said it is highly likely that three press workers kidnapped along the border with Colombia have been killed.
He said their captors have 12 hours to demonstrate otherwise before a major military strike will be launched against them.
As Moreno spoke last night, dozens of colleagues and friends of reporter Javier Ortega, photographer Paul Rivas and their driver Efrain Segarra held a candlelit vigil outside the presidential palace as they have almost every night since their disappearance.
The three employees of El Comercio newspaper were taken hostage three weeks ago by a holdout faction of the demobilised Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia while investigating a rise in drug-fuelled violence along Ecuador’s northern border.
Lenin Moreno’s threat of military action late last night came hours after a Colombian TV network said it had received photos purporting to show the bodies of the three men.
Although forensic experts are still studying the photos, Mr Moreno said there was an “enormous possibility” they are authentic.
“We’re a country of peace,” he said in an emotional late-night televised address from an airport hangar in Quito.
“We can’t allow the criminals to impose their rules. We’re going to fight them in the realm they have chosen and we are going to defeat them.”
Moreno returned early from a regional summit in Peru to oversee a crisis that has shaken Ecuador, which sees itself as insulated from drug violence raging across the border.
With him were family members of the three men. They went to Lima to seek a meeting with Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos amid what they consider a slow, inadequate response by authorities in both countries.
Ecuadorean and Colombian military officials have both denied the men are being held in their territory.
Earlier this week, authorities dismissed as fake a statement signed by the captors claiming the journalists were killed during a military raid coordinated by the two governments.
“We condemn the actions of the Colombian and Ecuadorean governments and their lack of seriousness in protecting the reporters’ lives,” Colombia’s Foundation for Press Freedom said.
Moreno seemed to acknowledge the criticisms when he said the time for restraint was over.
If proof the press workers are alive is not forthcoming by 11am local time today, he said Ecuador’s military would conduct with Colombian counterparts a “devastating” campaign to punish the kidnappers.
In a proof-of-life video released earlier this month, the three men identified their captors as members of the Oliver Sinisterra Front, a group of a few dozen that authorities say is led by a former FARC rebel.
Moreno announced last month that he was sending 12,000 soldiers and police to combat drug gangs and boost security along the border.
Picture: Reuters/Daniel Tapia