Hostages freed ahead of Colombia election runoff

Three high-level hostages were freed in a surprise jungle raid this weekend, boosting the campaign of conservative presidential candidate Juan Manuel Santos just days before the Colombia election runoff.

By , Correspondent

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    Colombia's Army Gen. Luis Mendieta, a released hostage of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) smiles upon his arrival to a military base in Bogota, Monday.
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Three high-ranking Colombian police officers and an Army sergeant were reunited with their families Monday after they were rescued from a jungle camp where they had been held by leftist rebels for nearly 12 years.

It's a serious blow to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas that was also expected to give conservative former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos a boost as the frontrunner in next week’s presidential election runoff.

Police Gen. Luis Herlindo Mendieta, Col. Enrique Murrillo, and Sgt. Arbey Delgado were rescued on Sunday; Col. William Donato who apparently fled when the rescue operation began was found Monday hiding under dead leaves and a plastic tarp. They had all been held by FARC rebels since being captured in guerrilla attacks in 1998.

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Still bearing the chains they were forced to wear around their necks in their captivity, the men descended from a transport plane to embrace their families. “They have arrived with the chains of torture, but with freedom in their hearts,” said Defense Minister Gabriel Silva.

General Mendieta said the rebels had taped proof of life videos to send to the hostages’ families about 20 days ago. “They’re probably on their way,” he joked.

Political impact

The raid comes just one week ahead of the second round of Colombia’s presidential elections, to be held on June 20.

Polls show Mr. Santos – who oversaw the 2008 rescue of 15 other hostages, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three American defense contractors – leading over Antanas Mockus, a two-time mayor of Bogotá. Santos won 47 percent of the vote against 21 percent for Mockus in the first election round last month.

“The timing of this operation will certainly give Santos a boost, though according to the polls he hardly needed it,” says political analyst Alejo Vargas of Colombia’s National University.

Mr. Santos, who promises a continuation of President Álvaro Uribe’s security policies, celebrated the rescue and said Colombia must “persevere until not one hostage remains.” Mr. Mockus has also vowed to be tough against the FARC.

Surpise jungle raid

The hostages were freed in a surprise raid on a rebel camp in Guaviare province involving 300 government forces called “Operation Chameleon” that followed a sixth-month intelligence operation. The plan was executed with “surgical precision,” Santos said.

An intelligence officer told El Espectador, a newspaper, that they agents had infiltrated the guerrilla front holding the men to such an extent that at one point “there were more members of the government forces in the camp than guerrillas.”

It is the latest blow against the FARC which has seen its numbers and strength dwindle in recent years after the killing of senior commanders by the Army and the death of its leader and founder Pedro Antonio Marin in 2008.

The FARC continue to hold 18 high-profile hostages that the guerrilla group has been trying to use as bargaining chips to force the government to free its jailed fighters. Both Santos and Mockus have rejected the idea of a negotiated prisoner exchange.

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