A Colombian soldier regained his freedom Sunday after spending nearly a year as a hostage of leftist FARC rebels, in the first of two unilateral releases planned for this week.
Private Josué Calvo, who was kidnapped April 20 2009 after being wounded in combat, arrived in a Brazilian helicopter on loan for the release operations. Limping visibly and using a long stick as a cane, Mr. Calvo, 23, was greeted by his family on the tarmac of the airport in the city of Villavicencio in the central plains.
Calvo, who was reportedly wounded in combat before being captured by rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) last year, arrived in a blue t-shirt and sweat pants and after a brief private reunion with his family he reemerged in a fresh army camouflage uniform and new boots, but opted not to speak to the media.
His father Luis Alberto Calvo thanked President Alvaro Uribe for authorizing the operation and said: “Joy has returned to our home.”
The FARC handed over Calvo to a mission of the International Committee of the Red Cross and to opposition Sen. Piedad Cordoba, who has been a key player in a series of unilateral hostage handovers in the past two years.
On Tuesday the FARC plan to release Sgt. Pablo Emilio Moncayo, 32, who was captured more than 12 years ago when rebels overran his base, making him one of the longest-held hostages of the guerrilla group.
His father Gustavo Moncayo became known nationally as the “walker for peace” for his long-haul marches throughout Colombia with chains across his chest like the ones he says his son has been forced to wear in the jungle.
The army said it had halted operations in the area of Sunday’s handover for 36 hours but Ms. Cordoba said rebels had complained that overflights had continued in the area of the release. The government did not immediately respond to the claims and it was not clear whether the second handover was in jeopardy.
The FARC, which numbers around 9,000 fighters, announced last year it would release Calvo and Moncayo, as well as the remains of a police colonel who died in captivity, but wrangling over the logistics of the release between the government and the rebels delayed the operations.
The rebel group last year released the last of its civilian political hostages which it wanted to use as bargaining chips in negotiations with the government. But the rebels kept 24 servicemen to try to bring the government of President Alvaro Uribe to the negotiating table to secure the release of FARC prisoners held in Colombian jails.
Iván Cepeda, a member of a group of citizens pressing for a humanitarian exchange of captives, said that once the two were freed, the group would send letters to President Alvaro Uribe, the FARC and candidates in the May 30 presidential election with a proposal for negotiations.
After the releases this week, 22 other members of Colombia’s security forces will remain in FARC hands. Magdalena Rivas’ son Elkin Hernandez, a police lieutenant -- has been held for nearly 12 years. She welcomed the release of Calvo and the upcoming handover of Moncayo but said “we have to keep fighting for those who were left behind.”
The once powerful Marxist guerrillas have seen their numbers dwindle under government offensives but the rebels still retain control over some areas of the country and continue to attack civilian and military targets.
Authorities blamed the FARC for a car bomb that killed nine people in the Pacific port city of Buenaventura on Wednesday.