The last known politician held hostage by Colombia’s main leftist insurgency was airlifted to freedom on Thursday after six years in captivity.
Provincial lawmaker Sigifredo Lopez was the sixth and latest hostage released this week by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in what the rebels said was a unilateral act aimed at starting talks on an exchange of hostages for imprisoned guerrillas.
At a news conference, Lopez firmly blamed the FARC for the deaths of all 11 colleagues who were abducted with him in April 2002. He said he survived because he had been separated from the other prisoners previously as punishment for arguing with a rebel guard.
“My companions never deserved to die the way they did,” the 45-year-old lawmaker told reporters in the provincial capital of Valle del Cauca. “The FARC massacred them on June 18, at 11:30 in the morning, of 2007.”
The FARC said at the time only that the lawmakers died under confusing circumstances involving an unidentified military group, and that Lopez survived because he was being held in a different location. The Colombian government blamed the FARC for the deaths.
After being isolated from the group, Lopez said he could hear short bursts of gunfire and then the sustained firing of automatic weapons. Days later, he learned from a radio broadcast that his colleagues had been killed. He said the rebels did not explain why they were killed.
With Lopez’s liberation, the FARC have released the last politician on a list of prominent hostages it published in October.
The FARC says it still holds about 20 police and military officials.
International Red Cross spokesman Yves Heller confirmed that the FARC on Thursday handed Lopez over to a humanitarian mission led by the Red Cross and an opposition senator.
Descending from a helicopter in the western city of Cali immediately after his liberation, a tearful Lopez embraced his wife, Patricia Nieto, and full-grown sons Lucas and Sergio.
Clad in a dark shirt and wearing a small wooden cross around his neck, Lopez lifted his right hand in triumph and wept.
“I’m well, I’m well. Thank you,” he told a cluster of reporters.
Previously this week, the FARC released three police officers, a soldier and the former governor of the southern state of Meta, Alan Jara.
Leftist intellectuals hope the goodwill gestures will prod the government to open a dialogue that might end the FARC’s 45-year-old insurgency.
But Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has resisted. His US-backed military has dealt the FARC a series of crippling blows in recent months. Uribe has called the releases attention-grabbing antics staged by the rebels to deceive Colombians. He and foreign governments have urged the FARC to renounce kidnapping and free all its hostages.
Opposition Senator Piedad Cordoba, who led the recovery missions, said earlier on Thursday that she sent a message to a member of the FARC’s top leadership asking for the rebels to soften their demands to facilitate a prisoner exchange.
The wife of one of the dead lawmakers originally kidnapped with Lopez said there were mixed feelings about the latest hostage release.
“Not all the 12 have been able to return, only one,” Consuelo Mesa told Caracol radio.
In July, Colombian military agents posing as members of a humanitarian mission spirited to safety US captives Marc Gonsalves, Tom Howes and Keith Stansell, along with French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt.