Colombian rebels on Tuesday were set to release a hostage soldier they have held in jungle camps for more than 12 years after guerrillas overran his army base at the height of the country's conflict.
A Red Cross mission flew into Colombia's jungles to pick up Pablo Emilio Moncayo, 32, who was a teenager when captured and has since become a symbol of those left behind in the waning war against Latin America's longest-running insurgency.
His release will be 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.
"This is the start of hope, of illusions and dreams," Moncayo's father, Gustavo, told local Caracol radio before a loaned Brazilian helicopter swept into the jungle to retrieve his son. "Already my heart is beating faster."
The handovers come before Colombians go to the polls in May to pick a successor for Uribe, who steps down after two terms dominated by his hard line against the FARC. He accuses the FARC of using hostages to lift their profile before the elections.
Guerrillas on Sunday freed Josue Daniel Calvo, kidnapped a year ago after he was wounded in combat. The FARC will still be holding 22 police and soldiers after Moncayo's release.
Moncayo's father lobbied for his release with governments from Venezuela to France, often wearing chains he says symbolize his son's captivity. Moncayo has 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.
Hope for hostages
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.
ReutersGüncelleme Tarihi: 30 Mart 2010, 23:13