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Colombian soldiers free long-held rebel hostages

BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombian soldiers freed two high-ranking police officers and an army sergeant who were among the longest-held rebel captives during a raid Sunday in the South American nation's southern jungle.

Six months in the planning, the rescue operation freed police Gen. Luis Mendieta and Col. Enrique Murillo, both captured by leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas in a November 1998 siege of the eastern provincial capital of Mitu.

Also freed was Arbey Delgado, a soldier held since an August 1998 rebel attack on an anti-drug outpost in the southern jungle town of Miraflores.

Defense Minister Gabriel Silva said the 300-man raid was carried out with "surgical" precision but conceded that another rebel-held Colombian soldier, Lt. Col. William Donato, fled for his life during the confrontation with rebels and that his fate was still unknown.

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


Mendieta was the highest ranking of the Colombian police and troops under FARC control. Sunday was his 53rd birthday. About 19 security force members remain captive.

The military said the rescue took place in the southeastern province of Guaviare and did not involve help from the U.S., a major contributor of military aid to Colombia.

President Alvaro Uribe spoke about the rescue by phone with Mendieta's wife, Maria Teresa Paredes, and with Murillo's mother, Robertina Sanchez.

"I am the happiest woman in the world," a sobbing Paredes told Caracol radio. "God heard our prayers."

Murillo's brother Emiliano said his family was watching a World Cup football match when a TV news bulletin announced the rescue.

"Can you imagine how we felt?" a sobbing Emiliano Murillo said. "There is a lot of joy in the family, but it's not complete because more prisoners are out there."

Military rescues of hostages are a tricky matter in Colombia.

Many families of the captives publicly discourage the government from mounting such operations. The fear that the guerrillas, as they have done in the past, will execute their loved ones at the first sign of attack.


In July 2008, soldiers posing as members of a humanitarian mission freed former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three U.S. contractors and 11 police and military officials held by the FARC.

But that was the last military rescue until Sunday's.

The FARC freed two officers in March in what it said would be the last unilateral hostage release until the government agrees to a swap for imprisoned rebels.

The government of Uribe, who leaves office on Aug. 7, has rejected the idea of a prisoner swap and demands the rebels free all their captives and renounce kidnapping.

The freed captives were expected to be reunited with their families on Monday.


Associated Press Writers Libardo Cardona and Cesar Garcia contributed to this report.

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