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Captured Colombian soldier Pablo Moncayo freed after 12 years

A Colombian soldier held hostage for more than 12 years was freed by rebels and reunited with his family, ending an ordeal that prompted his father to hike halfway across the country to press for his son's release.

Sgt Pablo Moncayo, 31, was one of the longest-held hostages of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the Farc. He was 19 when taken captive during an attack on a mountain outpost on December 21 1997.

He was flown to the city of Florencia yesterday on a Brazilian military helicopter that picked him up at an unannounced spot in southern Colombia where the rebels turned him over to a humanitarian team that included International Red Cross officials and a Colombian senator.

The soldier smiled warmly as he stepped down from the helicopter in camouflage fatigues and extended a hand urging his family to slow down as they excitedly rushed toward him, then embraced. His mother and father carried white daisies, and his four sisters beamed as they hugged and kissed him.

And Sgt Moncayo met his six-year-old sister, Laura, for the first time.

His father, high school teacher Gustavo Moncayo, walked more than 620 miles across Colombia in 2007 to rally support for his son's release. During the walk, he wore chains around his neck and wrists like those used at times by the rebels to bind their prisoners.

He had continued wearing chains around his wrists since then in solidarity with his son.

"I heard my father, that he wanted me to take off the chains. So I'm going to do that right now," the soldier said as he pulled the chains over his father's hands.

Sgt Moncayo appeared healthy and he thanked the presidents of Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil, saying they helped secure his freedom.

The family had been anxiously awaiting Sgt Moncayo's release since the Farc first announced last April that it planned to set him free. The event had been delayed while the rebels and government accused each other of holding up the handover.

The Super Cougar helicopter loaned by Brazil carried a team including Senator Piedad Cordoba, Red Cross officials and a priest. Both the flight's departure and return were delayed by rain.

Sgt Moncayo's return came after guerrillas freed another soldier, 23-year-old Private Josue Calvo, on Sunday, in their first release of a captive in more than a year.

Mr Cordoba, an opposition senator who has been a go-between in contacting the Farc, has said the guerrillas insist that after Sgt Moncayo they will end their unilateral releases and press the government to negotiate a swap of jailed rebels for remaining captives.

President Alvaro Uribe has called the Farc's unilateral releases publicity stunts and has opposed a prisoner swap unless any guerrillas who are freed agree to abandon the rebels.

But he welcomed Sgt Moncayo's release and thanked Brazil, the Red Cross and the Roman Catholic Church for their co-operation.

"Colombia receives those who return from captivity with open arms and rejects the kidnappers with the greatest strength," Mr Uribe said.

Mr Uribe, who leaves office in August after two consecutive four-year terms, is hugely popular in Colombia for aggressively fighting the Farc and dealing it crushing blows, including the 2008 rescue of former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three US military contractors and 11 other captives.

The rebels still hold at least 20 police officers and soldiers, including Libio Martinez, a 33-year-old sergeant who was captured during the same battle as Sgt Moncayo - a raid on a communication post at an elevation of 12,470 feet on Patascoy mountain. At least 20 soldiers were captured during the attack but most were freed in 2001.

The left-wing Farc, the Western Hemisphere's last remaining major rebel army, has fought for nearly half a century to topple a succession of governments.