'For 680 days I lived in fear,' says freed Briton

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The Independent Online

When Alistair Taylor woke up in the Colombian jungle five days ago it was, in his own words, another "Groundhog Day" – a day like each of the 679 others of his captivity in which he feared for his life.

But last Thursday was to become the Scottish oil worker's first day of freedom after 22 months of isolation that finally ended when he returned to Britain yesterday to be reunited with his family. The bespectacled 47-year-old was greeted by his Colombian wife, Martha Valencia and their son, Alecito, 4, as he arrived in Inverurie, Aberdeenshire, after a 17-hour journey from South America.

When he touched down at Gatwick on the way north, Mr Taylor described the psychological burden of his captivity – likening it to the film Groundhog Day, where a man lives trapped in the same 24 hours.

At an impromptu press conference, he said: "It was frightening at times but I just had to sit it out and wait. That's all I could do. One thing they told me on the first day was that they had all the time in the world. I got through it with determination and stubbornness. I feared for my life for 680 days."

Mr Taylor, who was flown to Aberdeen, a short drive from his home, in a private plane chartered by his employer, had spent the days since his release at the British embassy in Bogota having medical tests. With his wife and son, he was met by his parents, Alexander and Chrissie. The family, who campaigned behind the scenes for Alistair's release, asked to be given privacy.

Mr Taylor said: "I have lost two years of my life. It is very strange. It is going to be hard – just coming back and getting to know everyone again. My son is four and a half and it is going to take a little time."

The Scot, who had been in Colombia since 1995, was kidnapped by guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN) in August 1999 while travelling to work in a taxi in the oil-rich province of Casanare.

After almost two years in which he was moved around forest camps and eked out an existence on cigarettes and meals of pasta, he was finally released after secret negotiations. His employer, the Texan oil firm Weatherford, refused to comment on claims it had paid a ransom of about £700,000 for Mr Taylor's release. The company was understood to have employed an American anti-kidnap service, Corporate Risk International, staffed by former CIA and Secret Service agents, to bargain for his freedom.

Mr Taylor said he knew nothing of a ransom payment and that, even up until the moment of his release, when he was moved from a hide-out, he had no idea his freedom was imminent. He said: "All I was told was to 'come with me'. I thought we were moving camp." He was made to don a white poncho and warned he would be shot by snipers if he tried to escape during the walk to a handover point where he was met by representatives of his company.

The ELN, which opposes the presence of oil conglomerates in Colombia, is feared as being among the most ruthless kidnapping operations in a country where 3,700 abductions were reported last year.

During his captivity, Mr Taylor received five letters from home, through the Red Cross, and a photograph of his wife and child, who moved to Inverurie earlier this year. He also had a copy of the autobiography of the Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, and a shortwave radio. Despite the mental torture of captivity, Mr Taylor said it was clear the guerrillas knew his value. "I was treated very well. They were very careful with me."