After over six years in captivity, the four Colombian ex-lawmakers freed earlier on Wednesday have touched down in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, to be reunited with their families.
SAN JOSE DEL GUAVIARE, Colombia, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Marxist
rebels freed four Colombian hostages from their "living death"
in the jungle on Wednesday in a victory for Venezuela's leftist
President Hugo Chavez, who brokered the deal.
Venezuelan helicopters painted with Red Cross logos swooped
into dense jungle, picked up the four lawmakers -- all taken by
the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, more than
six years ago -- and flew them to Venezuela.
"I was the living dead but today ... I am happy, lucky,
radiant," ex-hostage Gloria Polanco said. She carried
long-stemmed flowers for her three children, adding between
sobs, "It's the only thing I can take from the jungle."
The three men and one woman appeared in sound health,
although one of the men, believed to have suffered heart
problems, looked gaunt and walked more slowly than the others.
Flanked by armed rebels, the four trekked down a muddy
slope of a jungle clearing and pumped their hands in the air to
celebrate their release, images on state television showed.
Relatives waiting for their loved ones in Venezuela's
capital Caracas stared at the footage, crying, holding their
hands over their mouths or clenched across their chests.
The rebels often keep hostages in neck chains or shackles,
and Luis Eladio Perez said his time in captivity was torture.
The release, welcomed from France to the United States, is
a victory for Chavez, an important regional player who leads a
growing group of socialist leaders in Latin America and often
bickers with U.S.-backed Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
Venezuelan officials said the handover raised hopes for a
broader deal to free dozens more hostages, who include
French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three
Americans whose cases have drawn worldwide attention.
Betancourt is seriously ill and treated badly by her
captors, the released hostages said, pleading for international
efforts to help free her.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has made Betancourt's
release a policy priority, welcomed Wednesday's release and
called for the rapid liberation of all hostages. The United
States also urged the rebels to free all captives.
"I don't know what I am going to say to him, because it is
going to be such a happy moment," said Lucy Gechem, the wife of
one of the hostages. "I always waited for him and I always
fought for him."
The FARC last month released two politicians in a deal also
brokered by Chavez in the first such breakthrough in years.
He had spent months in talks with Latin America's oldest
rebel force, but angered Uribe and Washington by calling for
the FARC to be taken off terrorism lists.
Hundreds of thousands of Colombians took to the streets in
February to protest against the guerrillas, who finance their
war by trafficking cocaine..
Betancourt was captured during her 2002 presidential
campaign. U.S. anti-drug contractors Thomas Howes, Keith
Stansell and Marc Gonsalves were seized on a 2003 mission.
The guerrillas hold hundreds of hostages for ransom and
political leverage in their four-decade war with the state.
They say they are fighting for social justice and want to swap
their captives for fighters held in government jails.
The recent releases have been unilateral and are described
by the fighters as a gesture of goodwill to Chavez, whom they
see as a sympathetic leader.
International pressure has built recently for a hostage
deal, with European nations also seeking to free captives.
The FARC released a statement shortly after the
latestrelease reiterating their demand that Uribe briefly
demilitarize a New York City-sized swath of land for the
handover of other captives.
Uribe, whose father was killed in a botched FARC
kidnapping, is popular at home for a U.S.-backed military
offensive that has forced the rebels from large areas of
Colombia. He has offered a smaller area for a prisoner swap.
Date created : 2008-02-27