Latin America & Caribbean

Colombian security forces free long-held Farc hostages

Gen Luis Mendieta in this file picture taken 26 July 2003
Image caption Luis Mendieta was captured in 1998

Colombian security forces have rescued two senior police officers and a soldier taken hostage by Marxist rebels nearly 12 years ago.

Troops attacked a Farc guerrilla camp in Colombia's southern jungle, rescuing Gen Luis Mendieta, Col Enrique Murillo and army Sgt Arbey Delgado.

Army patrols were searching for another police officer, William Donato, who fled during the fighting.

The rescue came just days before the second round of the presidential poll.

The rescued men were among the Farc's longest-held captives.

It is believed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) are still holding 19 members of the security forces who they want to swap for some 500 jailed guerrillas.

Most of the hostages were seized in the late 1990s.

Defence Minister Gabriel Silva said 300 men had attacked the camp in Guaviare province with "surgical precision" but he acknowledged that Capt Donato had fled during the fighting.

"We have high hopes that he is in hiding and that he will be found in the coming hours," he said.

He said the rescued hostages, who are due in the capital, Bogota, later on Monday, were being protected by 300 soldiers.

'Birthday present'

President Alvaro Uribe said the operation had been planned for several months and that Gen Mendieta, who turned 53 on Sunday, was in good health.

Gen Mendieta's daughter, Yenny, told a Colombian radio station she could not believe the news and was looking forward to speaking to her father as soon as possible.

His wife, Maria Teresa, said she was the happiest woman in the world.

She said she had not known the rescue operation was under way and could not wait to celebrate her husband's birthday with him.

Gen Mendieta and Col Murillo were captured on 1 November 1998 when Farc rebels overran Mitu, a town in the far east of the country.

Col Murillo's 12-year-old son said he and his mother had cried with joy when they had heard the news on television. He thanked the police.

Sgt Delgado has three children. His wife said she was hoping he could make up for the years he had missed with them.

President Uribe told reporters a soldier had died in the operation.

The rescue was the highest-profile mission since July 2008, when French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three Americans were freed from rebel hands.

Former Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos, who was credited with masterminding that operation, is favourite to win the 20 June second round of the presidential election when he will face Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus.

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