VALLEDUPAR, Colombia — Rebels released four Israelis and a Briton to a humanitarian commission Monday after holding them 101 days in the jungle-covered mountains of northern Colombia, where they endured hunger, isolation and the threat of death.
“We’re free! We’re free!” said Mark Henderson, the British hostage, told The Associated Press over a cell phone as he was flown to freedom aboard a helicopter. He lost 29 pounds while he was held captive.
Gunmen from the National Liberation Army, known as the ELN, kidnapped the five along with three other foreign backpackers from archaeological ruins in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains on Sept. 12. One of the hostages, a British teenager, escaped days later. Two other hostages — a German and a Spaniard — were released to the humanitarian commission in November.
On Monday, two helicopters carrying the humanitarian commission landed on a bare hill, where the hostages and the rebels, armed and masked, were waiting. Associated Press Television News footage showed one smiling hostage talking on a handheld satellite phone as a rebel, a red-and-black ELN bandanna across his face, walked past carrying an assault rifle.
The helicopters then took off and landed at the airport in Valledupar, in the shadow of the snowcapped mountain range, where some of the Israeli hostages, wiping away tears, rushed into the arms of relatives.
All looked tired, and wore muddy clothes. They had been walking since Friday to get to the rendezvous point for the handover, the Rev. Hector Fabio Henao, a member of the humanitarian commission, told reporters.
Despite their ordeal, the former hostages appeared in good shape, despite some minor skin problems, Henao said. “They are in very good conditions of health,” he said.
'Mommy, I love you'
Henao said the release of the hostages showed that advances can be made with the rebels through negotiation. “This gesture gives us Colombians great hope,” he said.
In the Colombian capital, Bogota, Tami Ohayon described an emotional conversation over a cell phone with her son, Orpaz Ohayon, one of the freed Israelis.
“I spoke with my son,” the former hostage’s mother told AP as she rushed from a Bogota hotel to the Israeli Embassy in the capital. “Everything is OK. He said ’Mommy, I love you.”’
During his captivity, in which he and the other hostages often went hungry and faced the threat of a violent death, Ohayon maintained a vow to stay alive, no matter what happened, his mother said.
“Every day and every night, he said ’I must leave Colombia alive, not dead,”’ she recounted after talking to her son.
In England, bells were rung at St. Cuthbert’s Church in Pateley Bridge, Henderson’s hometown, where a candle has been lit for each day he was held captive.
The Briton’s parents held an impromptu press conference outside their home.
Catholic Church, U.N. involved
“I’d just like to say a very big ‘thank you’ to the Catholic Church of Colombia,” said Christopher Henderson, Mark’s father. “They have done all the mediation between the Colombian government and the rebels, and we will be eternally grateful.”
The Colombian military earlier said it was holding back its operations to rescue the hostages to allow the handover to proceed. The rebels had warned that the hostages might die in a crossfire if a rescue were attempted.
Members of the humanitarian commission who escorted the hostages out of captivity included members of the Catholic Church, a U.N. representative and officials of the government human rights office.
Authorities have identified the Israeli hostages as Ohayon, 22; Beni Daniel, 26; Ido Yosef Guy, 26; and Erez Altawil, 24.
The ELN said it kidnapped the foreign backpackers to raise awareness about the alleged hardship inflicted by outlawed right-wing paramilitary factions and the army on the mainly Indian inhabitants of the Sierra Nevada.
Colombia has the world’s highest kidnapping rate, with some 3,000 abductions per year. Most are carried out by the nation’s two leftist rebel groups — the ELN and the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC.
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