Florencia, Colombia: A Colombian soldier held hostage for more than 12 years was freed by rebels Tuesday and reunited with his family, ending an ordeal that prompted his father to hike halfway across the country wearing a symbolic chain around his neck to press for his son's release.
Sgt. Pablo Emilio Moncayo was one of the longest-held hostages of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC. He was 19 when taken captive during an attack on a mountain outpost on Dec 21, 1997.
Moncayo was flown to the city of Florencia on a Brazilian military helicopter that picked him up at an unannounced spot in southern Colombia where the rebels turned him over to a humanitarian team that included International Red Cross officials and a Colombian senator.
The soldier smiled warmly as he stepped down from the helicopter in camouflage fatigues and extended a hand urging his family to slow down as they excitedly rushed toward him, then embraced. His mother and father carried white daisies, and his four sisters beamed as they hugged and kissed him.
Moncayo met a 6-year-old sister, Laura, for the first time.
His father, high school teacher Gustavo Moncayo, walked more than 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) across Colombia in 2007 to rally support for his son's release. During the walk, he wore chains around his neck and wrists like those used at times by the rebels to bind their prisoners. And he continued wearing chains around his wrists since then in solidarity with his son.
"I heard my father, that he wanted me to take off the chains. So I'm going to do that right now," the soldier said as he pulled the chains over his father's hands.
Moncayo appeared healthy, and he thanked the presidents of Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil, saying they helped secure his freedom.
The family had been anxiously awaiting Moncayo's release since the FARC first announced last April that it planned to set him free. The event had been delayed while the rebels and government accused each other of holding up the handover.
The Super Cougar helicopter loaned by Brazil carried a team including Sen. Piedad Cordoba, Red Cross officials and a priest. Both the flight's departure and return were delayed by rain.
Moncayo's return came after guerrillas freed another soldier, 23-year-old Pvt. Josue Calvo, on Sunday in their first release of a captive in more than a year.
Cordoba, an opposition senator who has been a go-between in contacting the FARC, has said the guerrillas insist that after Moncayo they will end their unilateral releases and press the government to negotiate a swap of jailed rebels for remaining captives.
President Alvaro Uribe has called the FARC's unilateral releases publicity stunts and has opposed a prisoner swap unless any guerrillas who are freed agree to abandon the rebels.
Uribe welcomed Moncayo's release and thanked Brazil, the Red Cross and the Roman Catholic Church for their cooperation.
"Colombia receives those who return from captivity with open arms and rejects the kidnappers with the greatest strength," Uribe said in a statement.
The rebels still hold at least 20 police officers and soldiers, including Libio Jose Martinez, a 33-year-old sergeant who was captured during the same battle as Moncayo — a raid on a communication post at an elevation of 12,470 feet (3,800 meters) on Patascoy mountain. At least 20 soldiers were captured during the attack but most were freed in 2001.
Before the helicopter flew back with Moncayo, the Colombian government's peace commissioner, Frank Pearl, criticized the Caracas-based TV channel Telesur, which is funded in part by Venezuela's government, for releasing photos and videos of Moncayo with Cordoba.
Pearl said there had been an agreement the handover would be discreet, and "the government rejects that a media outlet like Telesur lends itself to do propaganda for a terrorist group."
Telesur said in a statement that the footage was not recorded by any of its journalists and had been sent electronically to the channel as well as other media outlets. The channel called Colombia's reaction "irresponsible."
Uribe, who leaves office in August after two consecutive four-year terms, is hugely popular in Colombia for aggressively fighting the FARC and dealing it crushing blows, including the 2008 rescue of former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three US military contractors and 11 other captives.
The leftist FARC, the Western Hemisphere's last remaining major rebel army, has fought for nearly a half-century to topple a succession of governments.
Colombia's armed forces chief says he believes the FARC was behind a bombing in the administrative center of the Pacific port of Buenaventura last week that killed nine people.
Political analyst Leon Valencia, a former leftist guerrilla, said the FARC is trying to focus on its military efforts and has "a lot of interest in finishing with that issue of kidnapping, which has caused so much pressure" for it.
Cordoba said she has been given the coordinates of a spot where the remains of Maj. Julian Guevara, a soldier who died in captivity in 2006, are to be turned over.
Estimates vary as to how many Colombian hostages remain in captivity.
The National Fund for Personal Freedom says there are now 77 hostages in the country, including 21 police officers or soldiers and 27 civilians held by the FARC, said Harlan Henao, the state fund's director. Other hostages are held by common criminals or by a smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army.
Some groups disagree, estimating there are more captives. The non-governmental organization Pais Libre says there are at least 136 people held hostage in Colombia.
First Published: Wednesday, March 31, 2010, 09:54