updated 10/31/2004 11:54:51 PM ET 2004-11-01T04:54:51

Marxist rebels freed four hostages whom they had held in the jungle for more than three years, relatives of the former captives said Sunday.

The four former hostages were flown to Neiva, 150 miles southwest of the capital Bogota, on Sunday aboard a military plane. One of the hostages said their release was unexpected.

The rebels “were transporting us during the past three weeks from the deepest part of the jungle. Finally, yesterday morning they told us that this was the day and they were going to release us in the afternoon,” former hostage Anibal Rodriguez told Caracol radio. “At five in the afternoon they took us out of the woods, and to our surprise a priest was waiting for us.”

Rodriguez, his daughter Natalia and brother-in-law Jaime Brinez were among 16 people abducted by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, on July 26, 2001, during a mass kidnapping in Neiva. Most of the hostages have since been freed.

“The last month, October, was the hardest for everyone because there was a lot of coming and going,” Natalia Rodriguez said. “We thought they’re going to release us, they’re not going to release us and we were on the move the whole month.”

Brinez said the group was very happy to be returning home.

“We’re very optimistic and we’re going to continue working with a lot of optimism for the future,” he told reporters.

Carmenza Brinez de Rodriguez, a relative of the three, told Caracol that no ransom was paid and that they were freed as a “humanitarian gesture” by the FARC.

The fourth former hostage, Antonio Martinez, is a businessman who was kidnapped in a separate incident two years ago. It was not immediately clear if any ransom was paid for his release.

The FARC, which along with another rebel group has been fighting the government for 40 years, finances itself by drug trafficking, kidnapping and extorting.

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