FLORENCIA, Colombia (Reuters) - Colombian rebels on Tuesday freed a hostage soldier they had held in secret camps for more than 12 years after guerrillas overran his army base at the height of the conflict, the Red Cross said.
A Red Cross mission flew into the southern jungles and was returning with Pablo Emilio Moncayo, 32, who was a teenager when captured and become a symbol of those left behind in the waning war against Latin America’s longest-running insurgency.
Caracas-based Telesur television, which had a camera at the site, showed images of Moncayo smiling in uniform with Colombian lawmaker Sen. Piedad Cordoba, who travelled with the Red Cross and has negotiated hostage releases in the past.
“After more than 12 years in captivity, Sgt. Pablo Emilo Moncayo was handed over this afternoon, the Red Cross said in a statement.
His release was the second this week by the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, once a powerful rebel force that has been hobbled by President Alvaro Uribe’s U.S.-backed war on guerrillas and cocaine traffickers.
The handovers came before Colombians go to the polls in May to pick a successor for Uribe. He steps down after two terms dominated by his hard-line against the FARC and has accused the rebels of using hostages to score points before the elections.
Guerrillas on Sunday freed Josue Daniel Calvo, kidnapped a year ago after he was wounded in combat. The FARC are still holding 22 police and soldiers captive.
Moncayo’s father lobbied for his release with governments from Venezuela to France, often wearing chains he says symbolize his son’s captivity. Moncayo was only been seen occasionally in rebel videos since his 1997 kidnapping.
Guerrilla commanders have freed hostages before and captives return with stories of horrendous conditions, of being chained to trees or suffering jungle disease and fleeing constantly from army patrols.
The releases have reopened discussions about a possible broader agreement to negotiate an exchange of jailed rebels for kidnapped troops. But past hostage releases have not led to any such agreement or opened up peace talks.
Uribe, whose father was killed in a botched rebel kidnap bid two decades ago, says he is open to an exchange if freed rebels do not return to crime and if the handover does not mean demilitarizing an area that would allow rebels to regroup.
The FARC has in the past demanded Uribe pull troops back from a zone the size of New York City to guarantee any handover. They also wanted to include several extradited FARC leaders held in U.S. jails in any swap. Still, their recent communiques have not mentioned these conditions.
But broader peace talks to end the four-decade insurgency appear unlikely with Uribe, who demands the rebels cease hostilities before any talks can begin. Any candidate to replace Uribe in this year’s election is likely to maintain his popular, tough line with the guerrillas.
Once an army that bombed and kidnapped at will, the FARC has lost top commanders and seen its ranks thinned by desertions. But it is still a threat in rural areas where state presence is weak, thanks to cash from cocaine trafficking.
Additional reporting by Enrique Andres in Caracas, Writing by Patrick Markey in Bogota, editing by Cynthia Osterman