Colombian soldiers freed two high-ranking police officers and two soldiers yesterday who were among the longest-held rebel captives in a raid in the nation's southern jungle.
The rescue operation, which was six months in the planning, released police officers Gen Luis Mendieta and Col Enrique Murillo. They were captured by leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) guerrillas during siege of the eastern provincial capital of Mitu in November 1998.
Also freed was Arbey Delgado, a soldier held since a rebel attack on an anti-drugs outpost in the southern jungle town of Miraflores in August 1998.
Defence minister Gabriel Silva said the 300-man raid was carried out with "surgical" precision but conceded that another rebel-held Colombian soldier, Lt-Col William Donato, fled for his life during the confrontation. The 41-year-old soldier was later found in the jungle in good health.
Gen Mendieta was the highest-ranking of the Colombian police and troops under Farc control. Sunday was his 53rd birthday. About 19 security force members remain captive. The military said the rescue took place in the south-eastern province of Guaviare and did not involve help from the US, a major contributor of military aid to Colombia. President Alvaro Uribe spoke about the rescue by phone with Gen Mendieta's wife, Maria Teresa Paredes, and with Col Murillo's mother, Robertina Sanchez.
"I am the happiest woman in the world," Ms Paredes told Caracol radio. "God heard our prayers." Col Murillo's brother Emiliano said his family was watching a World Cup football match when a TV news bulletin announced the rescue. "Can you imagine how we felt?" he said. "There is a lot of joy in the family, but it's not complete because more prisoners are out there."
Military rescues of hostages are a tricky matter in Colombia. Many families of the captives publicly discourage the government from mounting such operations. They fear that the guerrillas, as they have done in the past, will execute their loved ones at the first sign of attack.
In July 2008, soldiers posing as members of a humanitarian mission freed former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three US contractors and 11 police and military officials held by Farc.