Colombian forces find fourth rebel hostage who ran away during raid to free 3 others

Monday, June 14, 2010

4th hostage found in Colombian jungle after raid

BOGOTA — Three police officials and a soldier held hostage by rebels in the jungle for nearly 12 years rushed into the arms of tearful relatives Monday and applauded the troops who rescued them in a surprise armed raid.

The four former captives, who were kidnapped in 1998 and were among the longest-held by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, received a heroes’ welcome as they arrived at a military airport in the capital of Bogota.

Flanked by his wife and two children, police Gen. Luis Mendieta described to reporters how he and the others were preparing to “celebrate” his 53rd birthday Sunday when the sudden sound of gunfire had them diving for cover.

“The shots begin, the grenades begin and I throw myself to the ground,” Mendieta said. “For more than 20 minutes (soldiers) keep up the attack.”

Eventually the guerrillas scattered into the jungle, trying to escape. The hostages also fled for their lives and were separated, he said, some running into the forest cover.

Soon “the army force arrives and I make first contact with them when I see a uniformed man with a helmet,” Mendieta said.

The other three were rescued in the hours that followed — most recently police Lt. Col. William Donato, 41, who was found in good health early Monday after taking refuge among trees more than 260 feet (80 meters) tall.

So far the military command has not given details on the rescue operation dubbed “Chameleon,” citing the need to protect the safety of those who took part.

But army Sgt. Arbey Delgado, one of the rescued hostages, said from his vantage point it looked like a clean, well-planned raid.

“The guerrillas took off running and abandoned their weapons and gear,” he said. “The (special forces) commandos make the impossible possible. There’s a place in heaven for the commandos.”

Except for Mendieta, the hostages still had 13-foot (4-meter) chains around their necks when they arrived in Bogota because the military had not yet been able to find a saw to cut them off.

Former hostages say rebels often wrap chains around captives’ necks to keep them together and prevent them from running away.

Mendieta and police Col. Enrique Murillo were captured during a November 1998 siege of the eastern provincial capital of Mitu. Mendieta was the highest-ranking member of the Colombian police and troops under FARC control.

Delgado and Donato were taken in August of the same year during a rebel attack on an anti-drug outpost in the southern jungle town of Miraflores.

The military rescue, which took six months to plan, is the first since July 2008, when soldiers posing as members of a humanitarian mission freed former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three U.S. contractors and 11 police and military officials held by the FARC.

Sunday’s surprise hostage rescue did not involve help from the U.S., the military said.

Later Monday the three policemen, now dressed in brand-new olive green uniforms, returned to headquarters to the cheers of their colleagues.

“I’m walking on air,” Mendieta said as he entered the building.

Donato told reporters at the airport that even after “12 years lost in the jungle … there is still much left to keep fighting for, to see our country at peace.”

“Hopefully the FARC will be able to understand that this struggle of theirs may seem passionate and exciting to many, but the country has shown … that it is repugnant,” Donato added.

“I never lost faith that God was going to intercede on his behalf,” his mother, Carmenza Gomez, said in a telephone interview. “I was sure he would come back. … Imagine the happiness.”

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