Colombian soldiers have freed three members of the nation’s security forces from rebel captivity, President Alvaro Uribe announced Sunday.
Police Brig. Gen. Luis Herlindo Mendieta, the highest-ranking officer held by rebels, and Col. Enrique Murillo were freed in a military operation in Guaviare state, in the country’s southeast, Uribe said at a community meeting in Choco state in the northwest. Details of the operation were not immediately available.
Later Sunday, the Defense Ministry said a third hostage, army Sgt. Arbey Delgado, had also been rescued and that troops were hoping to rescue a fourth hostage, army Col. William Donato, who was thought to be in the area.
Mendieta and Murillo, both in rebel hands since November 1998, were among the longest-held captives. They were two of 21 police and army officers believed to be held hostage by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as “exchangeables” for the release of rebel prisoners or other concessions. The insurgents are also thought to be holding hundreds of civilians.
“I’m the happiest woman on Earth,” the general’s wife, Maria Teresa Mendieta, told reporters outside her home in north Bogota. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this. Thanks to all Colombians for their solidarity.”
It was unclear Sunday afternoon whether the rescue was similar to the daring 2008 raid in which 11 military hostages were freed by commandos posing as humanitarian workers. Three U.S. defense contractors and former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt were also freed in that raid.
Uribe told his audience in the state capital, Quibdo, that the rescue was the climax of an operation that took several months to organize and cost the life of a sergeant, whom he did not identify. Also on Sunday, he announced the rescue of three road engineers who had been kidnapped June 2 while working on a project to connect Choco with Risaralda state. He gave no details about the rescue.
FARC hostages, some in captivity since 1997, lead miserable existences and are forced to march from one jungle campsite to another and sometimes spend nights bound in chains.
Murillo’s family told television reporters Sunday that the two officers had been freed early in the morning and were being taken to Bogota. Murillo’s 11-year old son, Sebastian, who was born after his capture, said he had “many things” to tell him.
“Now I can die in peace knowing my son has been released,” said the colonel’s father, Luis Henrique Murillo.
Since Uribe took office in 2002, he has refused to accept rebel conditions for exchanges. The score or so who have been freed escaped or were rescued by the armed forces or released by the rebels on “humanitarian” grounds.
Mendieta, then a colonel, was the ranking officer at a police base in Mitu, capital of the far eastern state of Vaupes, when FARC rebels overran it in November 1998. All 120 police were killed or captured by a rebel force then estimated at 1,800. Mendieta was promoted to general last year in captivity.
In March, the FARC released two army soldiers, Pablo Emilio Moncayo and Josue Daniel Calvo to Sen. Piedad Cordoba, a leftist lawmaker and friend of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Rebels then said there would be no further releases and called upon Uribe to negotiate a peace deal.
Colombians will vote next Sunday to select Uribe’s successor. Polls heavily favor former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, who is expected to continue Uribe’s policies toward the rebels. His main opponent is former Bogota Mayor Antanas Mockus.