SAS helps to free UK soldier in Colombia

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The Independent Online
COLOMBIAN soldiers, working closely with the SAS and Scotland Yard, have rescued a British army sergeant who was kidnapped by leftist guerrillas four months ago while "bird-watching" in a remote, mountainous, drug-producing region.

Staff Sergeant Timothy Cowley, 32, spent 119 days in captivity, much of the time blindfolded and bound to a tree. He was freed unharmed in a raid by Colombian special troops, who had been working in co-operation with an SAS unit sent especially from Hereford.

British defence sources said the SAS had not taken part in the raid itself but had advised the Colombians and helped in the tracking of the guerrilla gang. Negotiation experts from Scotland Yard had also been sent to Colombia to assist in dealings with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who had demanded a pounds 1.3m ransom for the captive Briton.

The virtual news black-out surrounding the case, and the high profile accorded to the rescue efforts, led to speculation yesterday that Sgt Cowley might himself have been involved in British military co-operation in the fight against drugs gangs. But Whitehall sources insisted yesterday that he was a filing clerk in the British embassy in Bogota, who had been in the remote Tolima region to pursue his interest in ornithology.

The FARC, Colombia's largest guerrilla group, specialises in kidnappings and protecting rural drug operations. The gang holding Sgt Cowley fled when the army attacked their hideout. The missing Briton was found tied to a tree, with a rope around his neck.

Speaking to reporters later, still wearing the red bandana used to blindfold him, the heavily bearded Sgt Cowley said he had been treated relatively well. Speaking in Spanish, he said he felt "very well".

"I've got a few problems with my feet, but basically I'm fairly fit," he told Reuter Television.

"You become accustomed to the environment that you're in - which is living in the middle of the wood surrounded by people who have got guns," he said.

"The guns are all pointing at you and you haven't got one to point at them," he said. "It's very worrying."

"You try to occupy yourself with various things," Sgt Cowley added. "I wrote a book, which I've lost, and I watched birds."

The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, sent his congratulations yesterday to everyone involved in the rescue.

A spokesman at the embassy in Bogota said Sgt Cowley would probably return home to England this week, though it had not been firmly decided.