Colombia’s FARC rebels have freed what they say are the last 10 members of the armed forces they held hostage in jungle prison camps for more than a decade.
Flown from a jungle rendezvous to Villavicencio city on Monday aboard a Brazilian air force helicopter emblazoned with the Red Cross logo, the freed men were united with their loved ones in a private area before the group was flown to Bogota, the capital, where other relatives were waiting.
They were escorted from the helicopter by nurses to awaiting relatives, smiling to the gathered throng. A few walked with difficulty and others jumped for joy on the tarmac.
One had brought along his pet capybara, a rodent native to South America’s jungles. Some wore the Colombian flag over their shoulders. All looked newly shaven.
“I shouted! I jumped up and down!” said Olivia Solarte when she heard her 41-year-old son, police officer Trujillo had been freed. He’d been held since July 1999.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, had announced Monday’s liberation on February 26 in tandem with a halt in ransom kidnappings as a revenue source.
But it comes after the group suffered some serious setbacks in recent months. Last month a military strike killed more than 60 fighters.
And late last year, the group’s influential leader, Alfonso Cano, was killed in another government strike.
Monday’s operation took place over several hours “in a rural area between Meta and Guaviare departments,” Maria Cristina Rivera, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross said at the airport in Villavicencio, some 110km south of Bogota.
The mission was led by the Red Cross and Colombians for Peace, an organisation made up mostly of women.
The group has been working behind the scenes for many months to make “this humanitarian handover possible”, said Al Jazeera’s Gabriel Elizondo, reporting from Villavicencio.
“To all those who worked for this liberation, thank you. To the 10 freed hostages, these victims of the intolerance and cruelty of the guerillas, we extend a welcome to freedom,” Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian president, said.
Civilians still held
“It has been an agonising wait [for families], many were kidnapped years ago,” our correspondent said. Some of the captives have been held for as long as 14 years – at once or in several stages.
He said one of the people who arrived at the airport to show support for the NGO’s effort was Rigoberta Menchú, a Nobel prize-winning human rights advocate from Guatemala.
“We know that there are several others that have been released this way. And we know that beyond the releases Colombia should have peace. We feel what Colomboans feel now,” Menchú said.
Our correspondent said FARC was also holding civilians but added that it was not clear how many were in the rebels’ hands.
“It could be as little as 80 or 90, but some estimates are that it could be into the hundreds. Nobody really knows what the status of civilian hostages will be,” he said.
“There is a real hope that this hostage handover could open up doors of communication and dialogue between the FARC and the Colombian government, but it is unclear whether the government will want to engage in dialogue with the FARC.”