BOGOTA (Reuters) - A former Colombian lawmaker kidnapped more than eight years ago by FARC guerrillas escaped through the jungles with one of his rebel captors in a severe blow to Latin America’s oldest insurgency.
Wearing a tattered black T-shirt and sporting a tangled gray beard, ex-congressman Oscar Lizcano, 63, marched for three days with his FARC jailer before reaching an army post on Sunday where the guerrilla surrendered to troops.
“Thanks to the army post we found after that march through the harsh jungle, falling down, with my legs swollen,” Lizcano told reporters, slumped exhausted in a chair, his voice weak after he was forbidden to talk for so long by his captors.
His escape follows the rescue of French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, three Americans and a group of other hostages who were freed in a surprise military operation in July after years in jungle camps.
Lizcano’s flight illustrates the military pressure facing the FARC and how rebels have been hurt by informants, bounties for deserters and improved intelligence under President Alvaro Uribe, who has received billions of dollars in U.S. aid.
The FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, was once a powerful army that controlled large areas of the country. But the rebel group lost three leaders this year and hundreds of fighters have deserted.
Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said a rebel, known by his alias “Moroco,” from the group holding Lizcano escaped in early October and provided details about his camp. Troops and police began a rescue operation over the weekend but Lizcano was already on the run.
“The army were pressuring us, we were starving, that made me take the decision,” said the rebel deserter, known as “Isaza,” who escaped with Lizcano.
“Our group was abandoned, there wasn’t much choice,” he said in a video broadcast of him meeting with Uribe.
MORE HOSTAGES IN JUNGLE
Uribe said Isaza would be paid a bounty and allowed to live in France with his companion in a deal his government has promised to FARC members who surrender with hostages.
Colombia has received more than $5 billion in U.S. aid to battle the FARC and the drug trade that helps fuel the conflict. Cities and highways are safer, but thousands of people are displaced each year by violence in rural areas.
Experts say the guerrilla group is well financed thanks to its involvement in the cocaine trade. But its commanders are increasingly isolated and struggling to communicate with their units as they are harried by military operations.
Betancourt, a former presidential candidate, and the three U.S. contract workers were rescued when their guerrilla captors were tricked into handing them over to intelligence officers posing as members of a humanitarian mission.
Lizcano, snatched in 2000 and suffering from jungle diseases, was the FARC’s longest-held politician. Rebels still hold scores of hostages for political leverage and ransom.
The FARC says it wants the government to pull troops back from a safe haven to swap key hostages for jailed rebels. But Uribe says FARC demands would allow the guerrillas to regroup.
Lizcano was last seen in a rebel-made video in April surrounded by uniformed guerrillas and reading from a statement pleading with the government not to try a military rescue that would endanger lives of hostages.
“Be strong, if I can make this effort... I was there for nearly nine years,” Lizcano said on Sunday in a message to the police, soldiers and politicians still held hostage. “I know they are going to get out, they are going to get their freedom.”
Editing by Eric Beech
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