Colombia’s FARC guerrillas on Wednesday set free the first of five promised hostages as they began the most significant release of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ tenure.
The guerrillas freed Marcos Baquero, 33, to intermediaries at an undisclosed site in the central Meta department. He was flown to Villavicencio, 95km south of Bogota, aboard a Brazilian air force helicopter with Red Cross markings.
The remaining four hostages will be released in different parts of the country in staggered intervals over the next few days.
A crowd of supporters and co-workers cheered and clapped as Baquero’s wife Olga and sons Samir, 10, and Emmanuel, two, rushed to meet him on the tarmac and covered him with hugs and kisses.
The ex-hostage presented his children with an ocelot — a wild cat common in parts of South America — that he brought from the jungle, along with a sketchbook full of pictures.
“I’m enormously happy to know that I’ll be going to my home, to my wife,” Baquero told reporters in Villavicencio.
Guerrillas with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) kidnapped Baquero, a local councilman and member of Colombia’s Green Party, in late June 2009.
He was released earlier on Wednesday to a team of intermediaries that included former senator Piedad Cordoba, two International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegates and a representative of the NGO Colombians for Peace, ICRC spokeswoman Maria Cristina Rivera said.
“We are very happy that this first operation was very successful,” the ICRC delegate in Colombia, Christophe Beney, told reporters in Bogota.
FARC rebels have pledged to release a Colombian marine and another municipal council member today near the town of Florencia in southeastern Colombia, and a police major and a soldier on Sunday in Ibaque in the center of the country.
The five were kidnapped in separate incidents over a two year period between 2007 and 2009.
Baquero said he plans to organize a march to demand that the FARC release all their hostages.
“It’s very difficult, painful and sad to be in the jungle,” he said. “We have to end this kidnapping because it is very tough on the country and there are many families that are suffering this, not just mine.”
Baquero said that the ocelot “was my companion in captivity. I talked to him.”
Brazil provided two helicopters and crews for the mission, and the Colombian military cooperated by suspending operations in a huge swath of southern Colombia from 2300 GMT Tuesday to 1100 GMT yesterday.
FARC, which has been at war with the Colombian government since 1964, has between 7,000 and 11,000 fighters and is holding at least 19 soldiers and police officers hostage.
FARC last released hostages in March last year, when they freed a Colombian soldier they had held for more than 12 years.
The rebels have long demanded a hostage-for-prisoner swap, something both Santos and his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, have refused to consider.