Hostages rescued after 12 years

2010-06-14 10:30

Bogota - Colombian soldiers rescued two senior police officers and a police sergeant that leftist guerrillas held hostage in the jungle for nearly 12 years, the country's defence minister announced.

A fourth police officer being held hostage escaped his captors during the military rescue operation and was presumably hiding as army patrols searched for him in Colombia's southern Amazon jungle, Defence Minister Gabriel Silva said on Sunday.

Armed Forces Commander Freddy Padilla said the three rescued men would arrive in Bogota on Monday.

"Operation Chameleon", the most important hostage rescue mission since French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three Americans were freed in 2008, was "flawless", Silva said.

The rescued hostages - General Luis Herlindo Mendieta, who on Sunday turned 53, Colonel Enrique Murillo and Sergeant Arbey Delgado Argote - were still in the area of operations in southern Guaviare department "well protected" by 300 soldiers, Silva said.

Soldier killed in mission

Ongoing fighting between the military and rebels with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas were preventing the rescued hostages from leaving the area, according to officials.

Padilla said an army sergeant died during the mission, although not where the rescue took place. He gave no further details.

Officials identified the escaped hostage as police Colonel William Donato.

"We have great hope he's hiding out and that we'll be able to rescue him in the next few hours," said Silva.

FARC rebels captured Delgado and Donato in August 1998 in a raid on an anti-narcotics base in the Guaviare region. The guerrillas captured Mendieta and Murillo in November of that year in an attack on the remote south-eastern border with Brazil.

Colombia's popular hard-line president, Alvaro Uribe, announced the rescue earlier in the day.

"I'm the happiest woman in the world!" Delgado's wife, Gladys Duarte, told RCN radio after hearing the good news.

Birthday gift

Relatives of the other rescued officers were also overjoyed by the news.

"I'm so happy. Finally my prayers have been answered," Mendieta's wife, Maria Teresa, said between sobs.

"He's celebrating his birthday and it's the best gift... Finally I can celebrate a birthday with him. I can't wait to put my arms around him."

Born soon after his father was kidnapped, Murillo's 11-year-old son, Sebastian, told Caracol TV: "The first thing I'll tell him is that I love him... that I've missed him a lot."

News of the high-profile rescue comes one week ahead of run-off presidential elections in which Uribe's chosen successor, former defence minister Juan Manuel Santos, is favoured to beat former Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus. The first round of voting was held May 30.

Still holding 19 hostages

Uribe, barred constitutionally from seeking a third term in office, is credited with cracking down on the rebels and cutting the FARC's numbers by half since he took office in 2002.

Santos, who as defence minister was credited with the spectacular July 2008 rescue of Betancourt, three American hostages and 11 military personnel from the FARC, has vowed to continue Uribe's crackdown on insurgents and crime.

FARC rebels still hold at least 19 soldiers and police officers who they hope to swap for some 500 guerrillas in Colombian jails.

Uribe so far has ruled out any prisoner swap with FARC, and Santos renewed his vow to pursue the rebels.

"Colombia can't stop these rescue missions by the military. The only thing FARC can do is to release (their hostages) unilaterally. There will be no swap, because that would encourage more kidnappings," Santos said on the campaign trail in Medellin.