updated 1/6/2007 8:10:37 PM ET 2007-01-07T01:10:37

A former Cabinet minister emerged Friday from six years in rebel captivity and said he fled through the jungle for five days after Colombian troops attacked the guerrillas who held him.

Fernando Araujo, 51, said he escaped Sunday from a guerrilla camp as army and marine troops battled members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. He then walked five days through the mountainous jungle to the hamlet of San Agustin, 350 miles north of Bogota, where soldiers found him.

"When the gunfight began, I told myself either I go now or they kill me," Araujo told RCN television on Friday before being reunited with his family in the Caribbean coastal city of Cartagena. "It was a decision of life and death," he said calmly.

Araujo said he was suffering from hiccups and exhaustion because he had not eaten in five days, but that he was otherwise in good health.

"I escaped five days ago with only the clothes I was wearing, not a drop of water, without a blanket, without a machete — only with my fingernails to find the route that would return me to freedom," he said.

Uribe takes stand
President Alvaro Uribe applauded the action of his troops and said an informant's tip led the military to the guerrilla camp. He said Araujo's family authorized the decision to launch the raid.

"I want to thank the compatriot who was the informant that allowed us to locate where Fernando Araujo was being held," Uribe said. "With the help of everyone, we will end kidnappings and terrorism."

Araujo served as development minister under President Andres Pastrana, who was elected in 1998. He was kidnapped Dec. 5, 2000, while exercising in Cartagena. The last evidence that he was alive came in a video FARC released in December 2005.

Deadly gunbattle
A marine and six guerrillas died in the battle to free Araujo, said Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos. The defense minister said that he and Araujo would visit three soldiers hospitalized in Cartagena to thank them for their part in the battle.

Araujo said he was the only hostage at the camp and knew nothing about the fate of some 60 other political prisoners, some held for a decade. The FARC hopes to swap these prisoners for hundreds of jailed rebels.

Among those being held are former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who also has French citizenship, and three American defense contractors kidnapped when their plane crashed in the jungle during an anti-narcotics mission in 2003.

Despite efforts by European peace facilitators to negotiate a humanitarian swap, the hard-line Uribe, mistrustful of the FARC's peace gestures, has long favored military rescues as a way to free hostages. Most family members of prisoners held by the FARC reject Uribe's position.

The FARC — Latin America's oldest and most potent insurgency — has been trying to overthrow Colombia's government for more than four decades.

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