CALI, Colombia – Colombia’s FARC rebels on Thursday freed a former lawmaker held captive for nearly seven years in jungle camps in the last of three hostage releases this week by Latin America’s oldest insurgency.
His two sons sprinted across the tarmac to hug Sigifredo Lopez after a Red Cross team ferried him by helicopter from the jungle to Cali, where he was kidnapped in 2002 in a brazen rebel raid on a provincial assembly.
Lopez was the last politician the FARC was holding for prisoner swaps. Recent hostage releases have raised speculation the battered guerrillas are seeking to gain political ground after a string of military setbacks in their four-decade war.
Lopez was the only survivor among 12 provincial lawmakers captured in the assembly raid because he was separated from the others as a punishment. Rebels told him the others were massacred in 2007 when their captors were attacked by another guerrilla unit they mistook for an army patrol.
“They had orders to kill them if the trophy was going to get taken away,” Lopez, gray-haired but in good health, told a press conference in Cali. “This was a war crime.”
Rebels freed four members of the armed forces and a former governor this week and the Marxist-inspired FARC appears to be seeking space to maneuver. But talks to end the insurgency appear distant and the FARC still holds 22 soldiers and police captive for leverage.
Freed hostages have described being chained by the neck to trees, suffering jungle diseases and enduring forced marchs as their captors evade constant army bombing raids and patrols.
Piedad Cordoba, a left-wing senator who helped broker the releases and accompanied the mission, said she had brought back a communique from the FARC’s top commander, Alfonso Cano, and said she would provide details later.
Lopez was snatched by rebels posing as soldiers searching for a bomb at the Cali assembly. Guerrillas bundled the kidnap victims onto a bus and spirited them into the mountains.
A rebel video inside the bus showed the stunned lawmakers when they were told they were in the hands of the FARC. Lopez was last seen in a 2008 tape, greeting his family and asking the government to negotiate a deal to free hostages.
Lopez, 45, passed his time writing poems and stories for his sons during his years in bug-infested camps deep in the jungle, but he was forced to leave his work behind.
The FARC once controlled large parts of Colombia, but has been battered by President Alvaro Uribe’s U.S.-financed security campaign. Three top commanders died last year and rebel ranks have been sapped by growing desertions.
The rebels have little popular support and are branded a drug-smuggling terrorist group by the United States and European Union.
Violence has ebbed, but the FARC — Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — remains a force in some rural areas where state presence is weak. Rebels were blamed for two recent urban bombings that killed four people.
The FARC says it wants to swap captive police and soldiers for jailed guerrillas, but the government and rebels are deadlocked over terms for the exchange.
The rebels have insisted Uribe pull troops back from an area roughly the size of New York City as a safe haven to guarantee talks over swapping hostages, as a first step toward peace negotiations.
Wary of past failures to broker deals with the FARC, Uribe has refused rebel conditions, which he says would allow them to regroup in an area key to arms and drug trafficking. He has offered a smaller zone under international observation.
(Writing and additional reporting by Patrick Markey in Bogota; editing by Anthony Boadle and Todd Eastham)