It is so wonderful to see civilisation, says hostage released after 12 years

Colombian sergeant praises father's 'titanic' effort in securing release from rebels
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The Independent US

First, he rushed from a helicopter towards the family he'd not seen since being taken hostage more than 12 years ago. Then Sergeant Pablo Emilio Moncayo turned and unlocked the heavy chains around the neck and wrists of his father, Gustavo. "I heard that Dad wanted me to be the one to take these off," he said, throwing them onto the runway. "So I'm going to do that right now."

It was a tearful homecoming for the 31-year-old Colombian army sergeant, who had been just 19 when he was seized by the Farc, the Colombian rebel group, in 1997. His mother and four sisters, who had helped orchestrate a high-profile campaign for his release, carried white daisies to the military airfield near the city of Florencia in the south of Colombia. The youngest, six-year-old Laura, was meeting him for the first time.

Sgt Moncayo looked fit and healthy when he strode purposefully to freedom on Tuesday afternoon. His release marked the end of a long and tireless campaign by friends and family hoping to draw international attention to his plight and that of the roughly 20 other hostages who are still being held by the left-wing guerrilla organisation.

In 2007, Gustavo Moncayo, an eloquent 58-year-old university professor with greying hair and beard, walked the length and breath of Colombia, a distance of more than 1,000km, wearing chains around his neck and wrists to highlight Pablo's predicament.

Farc hostages are kept in notoriously harsh conditions in the jungle, bitten constantly by insects; they are given sparse rations and do not see doctors when they are ill. They are often forced on long marches through the jungle to dodge government patrols.

Gustavo had hoped to persuade Colombia's right-wing President Alvaro Uribe to open dialogue with the rebels to finally end their long-running insurgency. He became known as the "peace walker" during the trek, and has continued to wear the chains ever since, he says out of solidarity for his captive son.

"You don't know how wonderful it is to see civilisation once again," said Sgt Moncayo in a press conference before he'd been reunited with his family. "My heart is going a thousand an hour." He thanked God, the international organisations who had orchestrated his handover, "and my father for his titanic, tireless job".

It had been a total of 4,483 days since the day, just before Christmas in 1997, when rebel troops overran the mountain base where Sgt Moncayo had been posted and decided to take him hostage, to use as a bargaining chip to be exchanged for captive Farc rebels being held by the government.

All but one of the soldiers captured in that attack, which took place at the height of Colombia's 40-year civil war, have now been released. The vast majority of Sgt Moncayo's colleagues were returned to their families in 2001, and his liberation has been the subject of negotiations for more than a year.

President Uribe, whose US-backed forces have won a string of victories against Farc in the past decade, welcomed the release of Sgt Moncayo, who is the second hostage to have been set free in the past week. However, he gave no indication that any further hostage swaps might be on the cards, saying: "Colombia receives with open arms all those who return from captivity and strongly condemns their kidnappers."

The strong line President Uribe has pursued against the Farc boasts popular domestic support, and has helped him win two terms in office. It is also endorsed by the US, which sees the group as a terrorist organisation responsible for a vast proportion of the global cocaine trade.

Although the Farc once had realistic aspirations to overthrow the government, it is now facing an uphill struggle. Following a string of defeats in recent years, its troops have now been pushed deep into the jungle. Many top officers have been captured, and remaining forces are said to be short on morale.

Campaigners for hostages still held by the organisation would therefore like to see President Uribe organise peace talks finally to end the conflict. But the President is unwilling to go down that route, which may be why Sgt Moncayo and his family failed to include him in the list of people they thanked following his release.