Parents' long wait for release of son may soon be over

The telephone in the hallway of Christopher and Sharelle Henderson's North Yorkshire home has been playing havoc with their emotions for the past seven days.

The couple had been anticipating a reunion with their 32-year-old son, Mark, until a call from the Foreign Office at 7pm last Tuesday revealed he would not be freed for Christmas by the Colombian rebel kidnappers who have held him in a remote jungle for over three months.

By Thursday night, the news was getting graver. The Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was threatening to "root out" the kidnappers. The Hendersons have learnt enough about Colombian politics during these past weeks to know that hostages can end up dead after rescue attempts.Mr Henderson said: "Ninety-seven per cent of tourists are released unharmed but deaths have occurred when hostages have been shot by their captors or killed in crossfire with the Colombian army. That is what we fear."

But yesterday the Hendersons became hopeful again. A 6pm call from the Foreign Office on Monday night revealed that the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Marxist group that seized the Hendersons' son, was prepared to release him and four Israelis in the next few days, possibly at Christmas.

The group said: "As proof of our flexibility and maturity, we promise to liberate the hostages ... hopefully before the end of the year, to avoid [accidental death at the hands of the Colombian army]."

"We are staying calm," Mrs Henderson said, unconvincingly, yesterday. "Cautiously optimistic," added her husband, whose daily routine includes an exhaustive search of Colombian newspaper websites to find nuances that Foreign Office phone calls do not tend to offer. Yesterday's edition of El Colombiano had Jorge Uribe, the Colombian Defence Minister, asking the rebels to define the area they want demilitarised for the release of the hostages.

The vast, empty beauty of Nidderdale, near the the couple's home in Pateley Bridge, was the only lonely terrain to interest the Hendersons before they received the telephone call that told them their son had been abducted with another Briton and six other backpackers near the ancient ruins of Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City, an archaeological site in the Sierra Nevada mountains, on 12 September.

Then came the drama that has accompanied their private agonies: the escape of the other Briton, Matthew Scott, from Clapham, south London, who leapt into a ravine and wandered through the jungle for a week before being found by an Indian family. Although the rebels freed a German and Spaniard at the end of November, there has been no sign of Mark except for a videotape of him recorded several months ago in which he appeared bearded and haggard as he urged the British Government to speed his release. Mark, a Leicester University French and politics graduate, spent nearly 10 years working in television production, much of it with the entertainer Clive James and part of it for the BBC broadcaster John Humphrys' company, Ace Editing.

Mark left in May to tour central and southern Mexico, and develop his Spanish. Finding the Colombian people "wonderful" - his words to his father in their last telephone call a week before his capture - he decided to head to the north of the country.

"I asked him if it was safe and he said it wasn't an area listed [as unsafe] by the Foreign Office," Mr Henderson, 59, said. "Though to be fair to the Foreign Office, all advice is to travel by air in Colombia." Mr Henderson treasures a recent letter from a member of an expedition up Mount Kenya, which his son joined when he was 19. The letter says: "Mark was the one who stands out. He never complained about the long treks. I think he will be able to cope with this ordeal very well." Mark's physical fitness is part of the reason why the rebels took him and left behind those tourists who looked unfit or had inadequate footwear before marching their captives through the jungle. "I just wish he'd been wearing flip-flops, like the Australians they didn't seize," Mr Henderson said.

Last weekend, the Foreign Office issued a message from Tony Blair, broadcast on Colombian television and radio, urging the rebel kidnappers not to risk "all that has been achieved" by delaying the release of their captives. But the Prime Minister's words would have had little sway. The war on terrorism and Britain's relationship with the United States explain why Mr Henderson has remained imprisoned, two weeks after the Spanish and German hostages were set free, according to sources.

Instead, Britain is dependent on senior Catholic clergymen, such as Father Dario Echeverri and Monsignor Fabio Henao, who provide the only line of communication with leaders of the rebel group, which was founded by a Catholic priest. The two clergymen are trusted by both sides and have experience in negotiations over some of the 3,000 peopleheld each year.

A UN humanitarian commission has also agreed to the rebels' request to visit the Sierra Nevada mountains, where the hostages are being held, to see how peasants lived there.