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Colombia gripped by hostage saga

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  • The story of a boy born into captivity has riveted Colombia for more than a year
  • Colombian government said the child may not be a hostage after all
  • Child was at center of hostage release drama
  • Rebel group had promised to release the boy, his mother, and another woman
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BOGOTA, Colombia (CNN) -- The story of a boy born into captivity in the South American jungle has riveted people for more than a year in Colombia, striking a nerve in a country numbed by 40 years of political violence.

Clara Rojas appears in a video released by the kidnappers in July 2002.

On Friday, the story took a stunning turn.

The top federal prosecutor in Colombia, Mario Iguaran Arana, said the 3-year-old child known simply as Emmanuel may not be a hostage after all.

Initial DNA test results, he said, suggest that Emmanuel has been living under an assumed name for more than two years with a foster family in Bogota, hundreds of miles from the jungle camp where he was born into captivity.

That revelation capped a week of dizzying developments that produced rare good news for relatives of about 700 hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a leftist insurgent force that has sought to overthrow the Colombian government since the late 1960s.

The news, if confirmed, would hurt the credibility of the FARC and could also tarnish the reputation of President Hugo Chavez of neighboring Venezuela. Chavez struck a deal with the FARC that was to have led to freedom for Emmanuel, his mother and another hostage.

The boy's plight figured so prominently in the public imagination in South America that Chavez dubbed the mission "Operation Emmanuel."

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When the deal collapsed on New Year's Eve, the FARC said that Colombian military operations had thwarted plans for the hostage handoff.

The Colombian authorities tell a different story. They say the FARC backed out of the deal because they didn't really have Emmanuel, born in 2004 after a relationship between a rebel and Clara Rojas, a former vice presidential candidate who was taken hostage by the FARC six years ago.

Around Emmanuel's first birthday, Colombian authorities say, FARC rebels took him from his mother and delivered him to a peasant named Jose Gomez. The rebels, they say, forced Gomez to pose as the boy's great uncle and place him in foster care by presenting him as an abandoned child.

The boy wound up in a two-story hospital of white concrete and red brick in San Jose del Guaviare, a small town near jungle territory controlled by rebels.

A doctor who treated him, Alredo Gutierrez, told a reporter this week that the boy arrived with no clothes and so touched the hospital staff that they took up a collection to help him.

Authorities soon placed the boy -- identified to them as Juan David Gomez Tapiero -- in the custody of a child-welfare agency. He had a fractured arm, suffered from malnutrition and had leishmaniasis, an ailment common in the jungle, authorities in Colombia said at a press conference.

A few weeks ago, with a deal in the works to free three hostages, the FARC demanded that Gomez retrieve the boy by December 30, Colombian authorities told CNN. Yet when Gomez tried to reclaim the child, he aroused suspicion by saying he was the boy's father -- not his great-uncle, as he had claimed to be in 2005, Gutierrez said.

That led to an investigation and set into motion a dramatic sequence of events that could culminate with more formal DNA results that confirm the boy's identity.

At a press conference in Bogota on Friday, Colombia's top federal prosecutor, Iguaran, said the preliminary results show that "there is a very high probability" that the child Gomez turned over in 2005 is actually Emmanuel. He said the initial results will be checked against tests being done in European labs to verify the child's identity.

Authorities compared the child's DNA with samples from Clara Rojas' mother and brothers, who had traveled to the Venezuelan capital of Caracas a few weeks ago in anticipation of the mission to free Emmanuel, Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez, a Colombian politician who has been in FARC custody for several years.

Emmanuel is among the most well-known of several hundred hostages being held by the FARC, which is Colombia's oldest, largest, most capable and best-equipped Marxist rebel group, according to the U.S. Department of State. The United States, the European Union and Colombia classify it as a terrorist group.

The FARC has justified hostage-taking as a legitimate military tactic in a long-running and complex civil war that also has involved right-wing paramilitary units, government forces and drug traffickers.

The group's captives include three American contractors who were captured when their plane went down in 2003 during a drug-eradication flight.

The group also holds Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian independent presidential candidate. She and Rojas were kidnapped on Feb. 23, 2002, after they ventured into rebel-held territory despite warnings of danger from the Colombian military.


On Friday, as people in Colombia devoured news of the latest development, the child remained in a foster home in Bogota. If further DNA tests confirm that he is Emmanuel, Iguaran said, authorities may relinquish custody of the child to Rojas' relatives.

As for Gomez -- the peasant who says the FARC compelled him to masquerade as the child's great-uncle -- he is in a witness-protection program, authorities say, living in an undisclosed location for his safety. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN Correspondent Fernando Ramos in Bogota contributed to this report.

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