Colombian rebels free last 10 military hostages

BOGOTA, Colombia — Ending a long-running and inhuman nightmare for the victims and their families, Colombia’s largest rebel group on Monday released its final 10 military hostages, some of whom had been in captivity in makeshift jungle prisons for more than 14 years.

A military helicopter on loan from the Brazilian government and staffed with international Red Cross mediators to complete a prearranged release plucked the four soldiers and six police hostages from the hands of rebels at an unspecified location on the border of Meta and Guaviare provinces in eastern Colombia.

The men were flown to the airport at Villavicencio, where loved ones waited. The release was first announced in December by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials, FARC.

Former Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba, a leftist with ties to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, helped broker the release and accompanied the Red Cross rescue team. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala was in Villavicencio for the hostages’ arrival.

The 10 freed men, some looking gaunt, emerged from the helicopter dressed in green fatigues and were led to the terminal by medical staff. One hostage danced in elation and wrapped himself in a Colombian flag. Another had brought a pet wild pig, which followed him across the tarmac.

The hostages made no comment to dozens of reporters gathered at the airport. An hour after arriving in Villavicencio, they were hustled aboard a government airplane and flown to Bogota, the capital.

President Juan Manuel Santos addressed the nation an hour after their arrival. He said he “valued” the gesture of the release, but he said FARC still owes the nation an accounting of the whereabouts of hundreds of civilian hostages believed to remain in captivity.

“It’s not sufficient,” Santos said. “The nation, the world, demands the liberty of all kidnap victims.”

The dubious honor of longest-held hostages belongs to army sergeants Luis Alfonso Beltran and Luis Arturo Arcia, taken in February 1998.

Over the last 15 years, FARC has taken about 500 military and political hostages, many of them survivors of clashes in which army or police bases were overrun, a common result of battles before the military began receiving $7 billion in U.S. military aid under Plan Colombia, starting in 2000.

The practice of kidnapping for political ends gained the rebels little public sympathy, however, and served to delegitimize their movement in the eyes of most Colombians, analysts say.

The release comes amid renewed hopes for a peace agreement between the government and FARC, which have been at war since the mid-1960s. Along with the rebels’ promise to renounce kidnapping, the release has been interpreted by some as a sign the guerrillas are ready to negotiate.

No peace talks are scheduled, however, and Santos’ government has denied rumors that one of the purposes of the president’s recent trip to Cuba was to enlist the help of Fidel and Raul Castro in persuading the rebels to come to the table.

In his address, Santos shot down speculation of any imminent peace talks. “I send a salute of freedom to the hostages, freedom that has been a long time coming,” he said. “Let no one be mistaken. We will continue to fight against violence with all the resources at hand.”

The Roman Catholic bishops of Colombia issued a statement Monday saying the release was a “necessary first step ... to end the scourge of fratricidal conflict and advance on the path to peace.”

The last time serious peace negotiations were held was the so-called Caguan talks from 1999 to 2002, when then-President Andres Pastrana declared a Switzerland-sized swath of territory a demilitarized zone for FARC as he and other government officials attempted to launch a peace process.

FARC never seriously engaged in negotiations, apparently using the time to strengthen its military position. The talks collapsed, and although FARC is a much weakened military force, hostilities continue.

In fact, March was one of the bloodiest months in recent years in terms of casualties suffered by the armed forces and guerrillas. Two different engagements in Meta and Arauca provinces saw 69 rebels die, and 11 army soldiers were killed in a March 17 ambush.

The FARC hostages perhaps best known in the United States were former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three American defense contractors —Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes. They, along with 11 others, were rescued in July 2008 in an elaborate ruse in which Colombian commandos posed as Red Cross functionaries.

Kraul and Gonzalez are special correspondents.