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Colombian soldier held 12 years is freed by rebels

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Captive freed after 12 years
  • Brazilian helicopter returns Pablo Emilio Moncayo to freedom
  • Colombian soldier had been held by FARC guerrillas since December 1997
  • Moncayo's father walked 700 miles in campaign to win his release
  • FARC say from now on, it will demand prisoner swap to release captives

(CNN) -- Colombian Sgt. Pablo Emilio Moncayo, held by Colombian FARC rebels as a hostage for more than 12 years, was reunited with his family after being released by his captors.

The young soldier arrived in the city of Florencia in a Brazilian military helicopter that transported him from the jungle, and he walked out wearing a military uniform and into his waiting father's arms. He had been held captive longer than any other hostage held by the rebels.

Moncayo was accompanied by Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba, who helped negotiate his release.

He had been captured as a 19-year-old corporal when Marxist guerrillas attacked his unit, killing 22 of his colleagues and capturing him and 18 others on December 21, 1997.

"How amazing it is to see civilization again," Moncayo told reporters shortly after his return. The advances in technology fascinated him the most, he said.

"I survived everything, all of these years of captivity because of my love for Colombia," Moncayo said.

Moncayo thanked Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa for asking for his release, and presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Luis Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, but he did not mention Colombian President Alvaro Uribe during his remarks.

Another source of tension during the rescue came after the Venezuelan-based network Telesur broadcast images of Moncayo and those involved in the handover. The Colombian government issued a terse statement calling the broadcast a violation of the protocols of the rescue.

The television station denied any wrongdoing, and Cordoba said that the humanitarian party had not noticed that the network had someone in the jungle filming.

During the handover, the FARC also gave Senator Cordoba the coordinates of the remains of a third hostage who died in captivity in 2006. Colombian authorities could retrieve the remains of Maj. Julian Guevara as soon as Thursday.

The FARC has said that Moncayo's was the last unilateral hostage release it would make. It is asking for a prisoner swap for the remaining hostages they hold.

If his experience was like that of other freed hostages, Moncayo likely spent the years chained to trees and marching from one jungle hideout to another every few days. Other captives have talked about enduring rain, cold and a blistering sun, and eating mostly beans and rice and weak soup -- when fortunate enough to get a meal.

Video: FARC rebels free hostage
  • Colombia
  • FARC
  • Alvaro Uribe
  • Brazil

It's a reality that changed Tuesday for Moncayo when the rebels released him.

The rebels had said they would release Moncayo, who was promoted to the rank of sergeant while in captivity, nearly a year ago.

The FARC already released a hostage Sunday.

Josue Daniel Calvo, who had been held for 11 months, was reunited with his family Sunday on a tarmac in the city of Villavicencio, where the helicopter that retrieved him touched down.

The humanitarian mission to release the captives has been led by Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba, who has obtained freedom for previous hostages. The Red Cross also has been involved. Brazil, which is trusted by both sides, has picked up and ferried the hostages aboard its helicopters.

The FARC released six hostages last year but have said Moncayo would be the last set free unilaterally. From now on, the FARC said, the rebels will demand that guerrillas held by the Colombian government be swapped for the remaining police and soldiers under rebel captivity, many for more than a decade.

Moncayo was among the best-known hostages still in FARC captivity, due mostly to the efforts of his father, who walked across Colombia to garner attention and press for his son's release.

Gustavo Guillermo Moncayo Rincon set out on June 17, 2007, Father's Day in Colombia, on a 700-mile (1,100-kilometer) trek from his hometown of Sandona to the capital, Bogota. The teacher became known as "el caminante por la paz" ("the walker for peace").

He was received by a governor and a mayor on his walk, which drew nationwide attention. Thousands of people cheered him when he arrived at the Plaza de Bolivar in Bogota in August 2007.

The walk put pressure on Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to negotiate with the rebels, which he has steadfastly declined to do.

The FARC announced on April 16, 2009, that it would release Moncayo in the hopes of starting peace talks with the government. Uribe responded that the rebels first had to stop "bombing, kidnapping and drug smuggling."

Any chance for an immediate release seemed to fall apart in December, when 10 armed men killed a state governor and Uribe blamed the FARC.

The hostage release came alive again this month when Brazil announced it was moving helicopters to the border near Colombia to use in the operation.

Calvo was released Sunday and Moncayo was set free Tuesday.

Calvo became dizzy and sick on the helicopter ride, but he was in better health than family and others expected, intermediary Cordoba said at a news conference. The soldier walked from the helicopter with his family and the aid of a walking stick.

One of the best-known incidents involving FARC hostages occurred in July 2008, when a rescue operation freed former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt along with three U.S. military contractors and 11 Colombian police and military members. Betancourt had been held hostage since 2002.

Colombia has previously said the rebels are holding hundreds of captives, but the government group Freedom Foundation said this month that FARC was holding about 50 people. The group attributed the revision to "cleaning up databases."

Independent anti-kidnap organizations accused the government of minimizing the problem to try to demonstrate political gains.

No independent estimate of FARC's guerrilla strength exists, though its military force has been severely compromised recently. Government estimates say the FARC fighting force could have dropped to below 7,000 from highs of around 18,000 in 2000.

Security analysts have said FARC guerrillas, who are accused of trafficking in cocaine to finance their insurgency, have thousands of supporters, mostly in rural areas.

The guerrilla group operates mostly in Colombia but has carried out extortion, kidnappings and other activities in Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador, analysts say.