Five hostages freed after 102 days in the Colombian jungle

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The Independent US

He was haggard, two stones lighter and his beard was considerably longer. But Mark Henderson had lost none of his spark as he stood in the Sierra Nevada, northern Colombia, yesterday and uttered his first words to his mother in three months.

"I'm still stood up a bloody mountain top," he told her. The 32-year-old did not have much longer to wait. Within minutes, he had left the remote jungle country where he was captured with seven other tourists by left-wing Colombian rebels 102 days ago.

Mr Henderson and the four Israelis held captive with him were flown to Valledupa airport where he was pictured last night, racing across the runway in muddy, baggy clothes and a blue woollen hat

Last night, Mr Henderson told Channel 4 News that he and the others were "literally were at breaking point" when one of the ELN leaders approached them three days ago and said: "Right, you are being released on Monday."

He said: "There were times when we felt that we were just left here, that we may just be forgotten by our governments and it could just be ... the end. We ... thought we've got to get out by Christmas. And if we weren't, we just didn't know what was going to happen."

Although he knew there were problems with human rights issues in the Sierra Nevada, he said he was still "slightly in the dark as to why we were kidnapped".

He looked exhausted, having been walking since Friday to get to the rendezvous point for the handover. It took place after two helicopters carrying the humanitarian commission which was to receive them landed on a hill where the rebels, armed and masked, were waiting with the hostages. Monsignor Hector Fabio Henao, a member of the commission, said the five men appeared in good shape, despite some minor skin problems.

After tucking into Coca-Cola and cheese, Mr Henderson was due to spend last night at the British embassy in Bogota before his flight home. Soon after his release he spoke to his mother, Sharelle, at the family home in Pateley Bridge in the Yorkshire Dales before he was passed to his 59-year-old father Christopher who said: "Hi."

"Hi?" replied his son. "Three months in the jungle and you say, 'Hi'. Is that it?" He assured his father that he felt "absolutely fine". He then spoke to his grandmother, and told her: "I'm coming back."

The television producer's phone call home to Pateley Bridge came 45 minutes after it was confirmed that he had been released by the ELN rebels, who had taken the tourists captive on 12 September near the ancient ruins of Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City.

The rebels, who were demanding an investigation into human rights abuses against peasants by right-wing guerrillas in the Sierra Nevada, had retracted an earlier promise to release the hostages for Christmas. The intervention of Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, and the publication of a UN report into the peasants' plight, seems to have changed their minds.

The release brought delight to Pateley Bridge. A single bell tolled last night from St Cuthbert's Church, where a candle has been lit every day of the kidnap. The Hendersons have fielded calls from the Foreign Office throughout their son's captivity, often three a day. But none matched the brief, rather one-sided exchange at 4.30pm yesterday when Mrs Henderson was told her son was on his way home. "Thank God," she said, as she listened to one of the Foreign Office staff. "Thank you." His father echoed the words which heralded the capture of Saddam Hussein when he walked from his house to address the reporters outside and said: "Ladies and gentlemen, we've got him."

Mrs Henderson said they always knew Mark would come home. She said: "This is just a bonus that he's home for Christmas. It is an extra Christmas present."

Mr Henderson may also be reunited with Matthew Scott, from Clapham, south London, the other British hostage who escaped shortly after their abduction. Mr Scott revealed last night that he had broached the idea of escaping with Mr Henderson, but Mr Henderson refused. "When I was discussing escaping, Mark warned me not to," he said. "He thought, among other things, that the rebels might take it badly, and take it out on the others."

Mr Scott, a 19-year-old student, said he had been worried the other captives may have taken his decision badly. "We made different decisions and I will be fascinated to hear his side of the story," he said.

The escape brought mixed emotions for the Hendersons, who also saw two other captives, a Spaniard and a German, freed last month. They were also shaken after the rebels reneged on an earlier deal to release Mr Henderson and the remaining hostages ­ Benny Daniel, Ido Guy, Erez Altawil and Orpaz Ohayon, all from Israel.

The only news the Hendersons had of their son was a video recording released by the kidnappers last month.

The Briton was dishevelled, but sounded upbeat. "Desperate times, desperate measures," he told his father, admitting that he had started smoking again.