Briton tells of jungle escape from rebels in Colombia

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The Independent US

The gap-year student who escaped from his kidnappers in the Colombian jungle said yesterday he feared for the safety of his fellow captives.

As he prepared to return to Britain, Matthew Scott, 19, said the other trekkers snatched by guerrillas in the Sierra Nevada mountains 11 days ago were hungry, thirsty and demoralised.

Mr Scott, from Clapham, south London, was among a group of eight people on a trip to see the ancient ruins of the Lost City when they became the victims of Colombia's biggest foreign kidnapping for two decades. Army officers have interviewed Mr Scott and believe his information will help security forces locate the remainder of the hostages - four Israelis, a German, a Spaniard and a Briton, Mark Henderson, 31, a television producer from North Yorkshire.

Mr Scott said the hostages were being forced into long, daily hikes through steep mountains and thick undergrowth to evade the army, which is searching for the missing tourists.

"The guy from Israel has asthma, and the other people are very demoralised. They have to walk, a lot, every day, in the rain. The guerrillas weren't giving us very much food" he said.

Speaking from his hospital bed, Mr Scott described how he jumped to freedom while being marched along a mountainous jungle track. He leapt from a high ravine and plunged into a swollen river.

He stumbled through the jungle for two days before being found on Tuesday by people from the Kogui Indian tribe. He was picked up by a Colombian army patrol and flown to a military hospital at Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast.

Mr Scott said: "We were on the mountainside, I heard the river on the right and I followed the sound. The sides were very deep. I jumped over the sides very quickly. I was lucky not to break my arms or legs."

He said he wandered "dizzy and vomiting" for two days before he was found. "The tribe that found me gave me soup and beans with a little salt and three oranges. Those are the only things I've eaten in the last 12 days" he said.

Last night the student was taken to the British embassy in Bogota where he is being debriefed by officials and is expected to fly home today. He hopes to be ready for the start of term at Oxford University where he begins an engineering degree in 10 days' time.

The Scott family celebrated with champagne yesterday after a brief telephone conversation with their son. His father, James Scott, 60, a retired surgeon, said: "He said, 'Hello big man' - that's what he calls me. That brought a tear to my eye. We did not expect it at all. It is an amazing thing, a man you have thought might be dead suddenly speaking to you just like that. It is sort of a miracle.

"It's absolutely awful. Each day you do not know where your loved ones are, will they come out alive or injured? It's unspeakable.

"I just want to get him back to talk to him and the family to gather round him. He's a single-minded and focused young man who puts his mind to things and gets on with it."

On Tuesday British diplomats flew over part of the mountain range where hundreds of soldiers supported by a fleet of Black Hawk helicopters searched for the tourists. The Colombian President, Alvaro Uribe, has blamed the Cuban-backed National Liberation Army, the ELN, for the kidnapping, but the group refuses to respond the accusation. Colombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) has denied involvement.

Mr Scott's father said: "[My son has] been walking for a long time and he's very tired. It was very risky and foolhardy what he did. He could have broken his arms or legs or he could have been shot.

"He asked me if we knew if he had been missing. It was not an easy question to answer, I said we did know. I think he will bear up very well. He's a very strong boy, obstinate and quite tough."

Mr Scott said his son had organised the whole trip himself for his gap year.

"There were three things he wanted to do: learn a language, charity work and do circus skills, as he is very interested in juggling."

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