SAN JOSE DEL GUAVIARE, Colombia (Reuters) - With tears, smiles and long hugs, two women hostages were freed by Colombia’s Marxist rebels on Thursday after years in the jungle, raising hopes for dozens more languishing in secret camps.
In a Venezuela-brokered deal, a helicopter flew deep into Colombia to pick up former vice-presidential candidate Clara Rojas and ex-congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez, and ferried them back across the border where a plane took them to Caracas.
In parting, the two kissed young armed women rebels on the cheeks and shook hands with the men in a grassy jungle clearing near the Colombian town of San Jose del Guaviare.
They then hugged the team that flew in to rescue them and spoke to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez with a satellite telephone, thanking him for his mediation.
“Please president, don’t drop your guard. The ones left behind want me to tell you that ... We have to carry on working,” said Gonzalez, 57, whose husband died during her six years in captivity. “A thousand thanks. You are helping us to live again.”
Rojas, 44, who had a son by Caesarean section during her five years in captivity, appeared skinny and serene. Both women looked tired and pale but in generally sound health.
It was the first time Latin America’s oldest rebel group has freed any of its high-profile hostages, who include a former presidential candidate, French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt.
At Caracas airport, relatives bearing white lilies met the women. Some wore T-shirts with a message: “Freedom for everyone now.”
Rojas wrapped her arms around her mother who uses a walking frame. A photograph of a child hung around her neck.
She told Colombian radio she had worried for years after she was separated from the boy not knowing where he was.
Gonzalez held her curly-haired granddaughter, whom she had never seen, and cried as she spoke into a phone.
Chavez later received them at his palace with an honor guard, red-carpet ceremony where they sang Colombia’s national anthem.
He vowed to keep working for the release of other captives, even though Colombian President Alvaro Uribe broke off the fiery left-winger’s formal mediation role last year.
“Hopefully we can soon talk about a second group” of freed hostages, Chavez said as he gave live commentary on television about the helicopters arriving in Venezuela.
A similar rescue plan collapsed on New Year’s Eve and a Venezuelan air convoy limped home empty-handed after it emerged that Rojas’ child, Emmanuel, was no longer in the jungle and had been moved into foster care in 2005.
But the success of the mission on Thursday should bolster the standing of both Chavez and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe despite weeks of bickering over the deal.
Governments from Mexico to France praised their work.
Washington also grudgingly acknowledged the brokering role of Chavez, a leading anti-American critic, but made clear it was not about to ask him to help free three U.S. captives.
The rebels’ gesture spurred hopes for an exchange of guerrillas held in government jails for hostages, including Betancourt, whose case is followed closely in France.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the release of Rojas and Gonzalez was an incentive to keep working to free other captives. “France is delighted,” he said.
Betancourt’s mother, Yolanda Pulecio, said, “I hope it will be Ingrid next and that we will be able to have Ingrid in the arms of the whole family.”
Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba traveled with the freed women and said they were worried about Betancourt, who they had not seen for some time. Cordoba said they brought photos of other hostages with them.
Colombia’s decades-old war is fueled by the cocaine trade and kills hundreds each year despite a recent ebb in violence.
Additional reporting by Hugh Bronstein in Bogota, and Brian Ellsworth and Frank Jack Daniel in Caracas; Writing by Saul Hudson; Editing by Kieran Murray