Wed, Dec 24, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Released British hostage was `at breaking point'

FREE AT LAST After 102 days in the jungle with leftist Colombian rebels, Mark Henderson said he still does not know why he and the other tourists were kidnapped

AFP , LONDON

Released hostages Israelis Beni Daniel, left, second row, and Ortaz Ohayon, right, second row, Briton Mark Henderson, front, speaking on the phone, and Israeli Erez Altawil, front, right, arrive at Valledupar's airport on Monday.

PHOTO: AFP

A British hostage set free on Monday after more than 100 days captivity in the Colombian jungle said he was "literally at breaking point" when he learned three days ago he was to be released.

The leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) had seized Mark Henderson, 32, along with seven other tourists on Sep. 12 as they trekked in the Sierra Nevada moun-tain region near Colombia's Caribbean coast.

"One of the leaders of the ELN was with us... we literally were at breaking point and he came up to me and said, `Right, you are being released on Monday,'" Henderson said on Monday as he waited with four Israeli hostages for a helicopter to fly them out of the mountains.

Although aware of human rights issues in the Sierra Nevada, Henderson -- giving his first interview via satellite phone hours after he was freed -- said he was still "slightly in the dark as to why we were kidnapped."

Henderson made an emotional phone call, the first since he was taken hostage 102 days ago, to his anxious parents Christopher and Sharelle in northeast England.

When his father, at the family's home in Pateley Bridge, North Yorkshire, said "Hi," a joking Mark said: "`Hi?' Three months in the jungle and you say `Hi.' Is that it?"

There were tears of joy as his parents received the call live on British television.

Asked how he felt, Henderson said: "Fine, absolutely fine. I'm a bit lighter though. About two stone lighter."

The former hostage, who soun-ded in high spirits, went on to say: "I am still in the jungle. About to get on a helicopter. Still here, still in Sierra Nevada."

Moments earlier, a message from Mark was passed on to his parents through ITV News.

It read: "Mum, dad I cannot wait to get back over there. I can't wait to get back home and speak to my parents finally.

"The greatest worry for all of us here over this awful time has been your health not my health, the health of my parents, my grandparents and our relatives.

"The worst thing is not knowing what you are going through and how you are coping with the worry. I'll be home soon."

Henderson was captured along with fellow Briton Matthew Scott, a German, a Spaniard and four Israelis.

Scott, 19, from Clapham in southwest London, escaped the day after he was captured.

The German and Spaniard were released later.

Earlier Monday, the Foreign Office rang the Hendersons to tell them their son and the remaining hostages had finally been released.

Answering the phone, Mrs Henderson said "thank God" before telling her family that Mark was safe.

Henderson was due to spend the night at the British Embassy in Bogota before boarding a flight to Heathrow yesterday, arriving on home soil today.

The ELN is Colombia's second-largest left-wing rebel group, with an estimated 4,000 armed fighters.

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