Colombian hostages' long wait for freedom

Luis Afonso Beltran (right) is helped off the helicopter after landing in Villavicencio It was a homecoming Sgt Beltran and the others had dreamed of

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Luis Alfonso Beltran had been waiting for freedom for 5,145 days. And on the afternoon of Monday 2 April, his wait was over.

It was then that the helicopter carrying Sgt Beltran and the nine other police and military hostages held by Colombia's Farc rebels landed in the town of Villavicencio.

Heavy rain had delayed the operation, which was brokered by a local group Colombians for Peace and supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Brazilian Air Force.

For a while it seemed as if the release of the hostages, presented by the rebels as a "peace gesture", would have to wait for another day.

But after the rains eased, the helicopter took off for a rendezvous point in the jungle and returned with the men.

In Villavicencio, at last, Sgt Beltran was finally able to embrace his mother for the first time in more than 14 years.

Together with Luis Arturo Arcia, also released on Monday, Sgt Beltran had the dubious honour of being the longest-serving military hostage of Colombia's oldest and largest insurgent group.

Changed world

All the men set free had spent more than a decade captive in the jungle, where the Farc kept them in the hope of forcing an exchange for jailed guerrillas.

During that time the world changed and so did their families.

Maria Virginia Franco, mother of Sgt Beltran, next to a banner of the hostages on 30 March 2012 For Sgt Beltran's mother and the other relatives it had been years of agony

Loved ones died, and sons and daughters left behind grew older away from their fathers.

And during that time, Colombia also changed.

The mighty Farc, which a decade ago had some 18,000 fighters and was able to take over relatively large cities, grew weaker.

They suffered military setback after military setback, and twice had to appoint a new top commander.

Over time, it also became more than evident that pictures of the men chained in the jungle did no good to the guerrillas' public image.

The death in captivity of some hostages also provoked some of the biggest demonstrations Colombia had ever seen.

Because of this, many Colombians believe that by releasing the hostages the Farc were simply trying to get rid of a problem and to buy some time in order to regroup.

Others, however, regard the releases, and the Farc's promise to stop kidnapping civilians for ransom, as a first genuine step towards peace.

"It certainly is a peace gesture, an important gesture," Ivan Cepeda, from Colombians for Peace, told the BBC.

"It was a difficult decision for the Farc to make," says Ariel Avila, from the Bogota-based think-tank Corporacion Nuevo Arcoiris.

"It was negotiated between the seven members of its [political] secretariat and it almost broke it, which had never happened before.

"I don't know if that brings Colombia closer to peace, I don't know if things will end well or not, but do I know [the hostages' release] proves the Farc wants to negotiate."

The challenge, according to Mr Avila, is that the Colombian society might not yet be ready to enter new peace talks.

Peace in sight?

President Juan Manuel Santos will have to move carefully.

He welcomed the releases but insisted, once again, it was not enough.

In the past, he has asked the Farc to abandon kidnapping, stop their "terrorist attacks", refrain from recruiting minors and stop trafficking drugs.

Mr Santos made a point of emphasising the fate of civilians kidnapped for ransom, saying the hundreds still being believed to be held by the Farc must also be freed.

The Colombian president also suggested military operations against the rebels would continue until the Farc gave further proof of his commitment to peace.

"Make no mistake: this government has a policy, which consists in facing the violent groups with all its might," he said.

This suggests that, at least on the surface, little will change in Colombia as a result of the release of Mr Beltran and his fellow hostages.

But at the same time, hopes for a negotiated peace also seem more realistic than they were.

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