Speaking after a meeting with Alvaro Uribe, the Colombian president, Pinchao Blanco demonstrated how he slipped the chains that the rebels used to detain him.

His voice was hoarse and his hands emaciated and scratched after more than two weeks hiding in the jungle.

Suffering

His account was the first concrete news about Thomas Howes, Marc Gonsalves and Keith Stansell, the three kidnapped US men, since a Colombian journalist released a video of them at a secret jungle hide-out in October 2003.

Betancourt, who has dual French-Colombian nationality, was a presidential candidate when she was taken hostage in 2002.

"We no longer talked about the abduction because it was a topic that was so thrashed out after nine years, but we did speak of family themes"

Pinchao Blanco
Pinchao Blanco was seized when guerrillas from Farc, Colombia's largest rebel group, attacked a police base in 1998, killing some officers and taking more than 60 hostage.

He said he was held with a group of 13 hostages, including some other police officers.

All of the hostages were suffering from ailments after years in the jungle, including Gonsalves who has hepatitis, Pinchao Blanco said.

"I hope they can return soon, God protect them," he said, breaking into tears.

"I took advantage of the circumstances that were presented to me, in spite of thinking that they would never exist. God's decisions led me to freedom."

He said he feared his actions might spark reprisals against the other hostages.

Family talk

Pinchao Blanco said the hostages were frequently moved from one location to another, and that over the years they ceased talking about their situation.

"We no longer talked about the abduction because it was a topic that was so thrashed out after nine years, but we did speak of family themes," he said.

He said he spent time with Betancourt, who was kidnapped in 2002, as well her running mate Clara Rojas and the three American men.

Although violence has decreased under Uribe, who has cracked down on the illegal cocaine trade with US assistance, kidnapping is still a sensitive issue with hundreds of hostages still being held.

Farc has been fighting the government for more than 40 years and still remains strong in rural areas. It is demanding the release of 500 of its members in exchange for freeing 57 hostages.