Briton kept up spirits of other four hostages, says priest

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The Independent US

The parents of freed British hostage Mark Henderson will enjoy a Christmas Eve reunion with their son today when he returns home after being held for 102 days by Colombian rebels.

Mr Henderson, 32, was last night flying home from Bogota and should land at Heathrow airport around lunchtime today where he will be met by his parents, Sherelle and Christopher.

Meanwhile, Monsignor Hector Henao, a priest who is a member of the humanitarian commission which negotiated the release of Mr Henderson and four Israeli men, yesterday paid tribute to the Englishman for keeping up the spirits of his fellow captives.

"Mark kept them hanging on and never lost his hope,'' he told The Independent last night. In Bogota, Mr Henderson spent his first night of freedom at the residence of the British ambassador where he underwent medical tests.

A spokesman for the British Embassy said yesterday: "The initial indications are that he is in good shape physically and mentally, aside from a bit of exhaustion."

Although after a diet of potatoes, guavas and yucca, Mr Henderson was said to be looking forward to a slice of pizza and a glass of red wine, his parents said yesterday that they were planning a traditional Christmas meal. Mr Henderson had apologised to his parents for not having had the chance to buy them Christmas presents. His mother Sherelle, at home in Pateley Bridge, North Yorkshire, asked whether she was upset, said: "Not at all, he is the best present we could have. There are a few presents waiting for him under the tree but we are going to do more shopping today."

His father Christopher, 59, said: "We always believed he would be back. He had such great support from friends and the local community. All that gave us the strength to believe he would be back."

Mr Henderson was captured - along with fellow Briton Matthew Scott, a German, a Spaniard and the four Israelis - by left-wing rebels from the National Liberation Army (ELN) in September while travelling to the ruins of the 2,500-year-old Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City.

Mr Scott, 19, from Clapham, south London, escaped shortly after his capture by leaping from a high ravine and spending 12 days alone in the jungle; he expects to be at Heathrow today. The Spaniard and the German were released later.

Mgr Henao, who accompanied Mr Henderson on the helicopter trip from the Sierra Nevada to Bogota, said: "The hostages were never without optimism but it was Mark who kept them hanging on. In spite of the anxiety and the stress accumulated from three months and 11 days of abduction, Mark never lost his hope and kept the Israeli folks hanging on to it as well." Mr Henderson told the priest that to reach the rendezvous point with the helicopter, the captives had been forced to cross rivers and mosquito-infested swamps. "They stopped to recover some sleep on improvised beds, but the pause was never too long," he added.

The priest said that the release of the hostages, in return for a United Nations investigation into the plight of the local indigenous peoples, had built a "bridge of peace" which might end the rebels' practice of kidnapping thousands of people each year, many of them foreigners. The practice is still widespread, despite assertions from the Colombian government that the country is safe for tourism.

Orpaz Ohayon, 22, one of the four Israelis released, told a news conference yesterday that the rebels had "treated us like animals at a zoo." He also called on the Colombian government to apologise for suggestions that the hostages might have been gun-runners and in the country illegally.