BOGOTA — Three police officials and a soldier held hostage by rebels in the jungle for nearly 12 years rushed into the arms of tearful relatives Monday and applauded the troops who rescued them in a surprise armed raid.
The four former captives, who were kidnapped in 1998 and were among the longest-held by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, received a heroes' welcome as they arrived at a military airport in the capital of Bogota.
Flanked by his wife and two children, police Gen. Luis Mendieta described to reporters how he and the others were preparing to "celebrate" his 53rd birthday Sunday when the sudden sound of gunfire had them diving for cover.
"The shots begin, the grenades begin and I throw myself to the ground," Mendieta said. "For more than 20 minutes (soldiers) keep up the attack."
Eventually the guerrillas scattered into the jungle, trying to escape. The hostages also fled for their lives and were separated, he said, some running into the forest cover. Soon "the army force arrives and I make first contact with them when I see a uniformed man with a helmet," Mendieta said.
The other three — police Col. Enrique Murillo, Lt. Col. William Donato and Sgt. Arbey Delgado — were rescued in the hours that followed.
The rescue comes ahead of the second-round vote in Colombia's presidential elections, set for Sunday. Bloomberg News reported that polls show voters favor former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos over Antanas Mockus, a two-time mayor of Bogota. Santos won 47 percent of the vote against 21 percent for Mockus in the first round last month.