VILLAVICENCIO, Colombia (Reuters) - Colombian rebels released a kidnapped army soldier to a Red Cross mission in the southern jungle on Sunday, almost a year after he was wounded and captured by Latin America’s oldest insurgency.
In the first of two planned handovers, Josue Daniel Calvo was freed by the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and flown from the jungle to Villavicencio, where he stepped off a helicopter to embrace his father and sister.
Calvo was limping badly, but looked in better health than other recently released hostages, some of whom had spent years in secret camps where they were chained and suffered from tropical diseases during captivity.
“Happiness has returned to our home again,” Luis Alberto Calvo, the soldier’s father, said shortly afterward when his son reappeared before reporters wearing his army uniform.
The rebels promised to free Calvo and another soldier, Pablo Emilio Moncayo, a year ago, but the release was delayed by disagreements between rebels and President Alvaro Uribe, who accuses the FARC of using hostages to score political points.
The handover comes just months before Colombians go to the polls in May to pick a successor for Uribe, who steps down after two terms dominated by his hardline campaign against the leftist guerrillas and cocaine traffickers.
LEFT BEHIND IN JUNGLES
Calvo’s release was the latest unilateral gesture by the FARC. But broader peace talks appear unlikely with Uribe, whose U.S.-backed security drive has battered the FARC by hitting at its commanders and forcing desertions.
The FARC still holds 23 police and soldiers for political leverage as part of its four-decade-old war on the state.
The army halted operations during the handover while a loaned Brazilian army helicopter with Red Cross insignia flew the Red Cross team and mediator Sen. Piedad Cordoba, to a secret jungle location.
Rebels on Tuesday will release Moncayo, who was captured more than 12 years ago when rebels overran his army base. One of the longest-held FARC hostages, Moncayo has become a symbol of those left behind in the jungles.
He has only been seen occasionally in rebel videos.
Once a powerful army fighting for a socialist state, the FARC relies now on ambushes and bombs to harass troops. With very little popular support, rebels finance their operations with cocaine trafficking, kidnapping and extortion.
Still, the FARC remain a force in some rural areas, mainly in southern jungles, where state presence is still weak and impoverished residents are often forced to join armed groups or grow coca leaf used to manufacture cocaine.
In December, the FARC kidnapped and killed Caqueta state Governor Luis Cuellar in a high-profile operation, and this month rebels also kidnapped five local oil contractors who were later rescued by the army.
Writing by Patrick Markey in Bogota; Editing by Doina Chiacu
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