January 15, 2008 / 6:36 PM / 11 years ago

Colombian hostages sad, ill, letters show

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Chained, often weak from disease and wracked with despair, Colombian hostages in jungle camps cling to hope a deal with their Marxist rebel captors will free them, letters from the captives released on Tuesday show.

Colombian politician Consuelo Gonzalez (R) offers proof of life to a relative of a kidnapped person in Bogota January 14, 2008. Gonzalez, freed after years in guerrilla captivity, returned to Bogota on Monday carrying letters and photographs from fellow kidnap victims left behind in secret jungle camps. REUTERS/Daniel Munoz

The notes and pictures from guerrilla hostages were brought by former congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez who was freed last week after nearly six years in rebel captivity in a deal brokered by Venezuela’s left-wing President Hugo Chavez.

The release of Gonzalez and fellow captive, Clara Rojas, has raised hopes for an accord to free other hostages held by Latin America’s oldest insurgency, including French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three Americans.

But letters from those left behind such as Police Col. Luis Mendieta, captured nearly a decade ago, show the toll on their physical and mental health after bouts of illness, long jungle marches, and frustration after years in insect-infested camps.

“It is not the physical pain that wounds us, nor the chains on our necks that torment us or the constant sickness ... it’s the mental agony of the irrationality of all this,” says one letter signed by Mendieta and others read on local radio.

“It seems that we are worthless, that we do not exist.”

Details of suffering from recent hostage letters have shocked Colombians even as violence from their four-decade conflict eases under President Alvaro Uribe, a Washington ally who has led a campaign to drive the rebels into the jungles.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, still holds several hundred hostages for ransom or political leverage. Authorities said the rebels kidnapped six Colombian tourists on Sunday from a remote Pacific beach.

Mendieta wrote that he has been chained to a pole and spends days trying to pass time playing cards and learning English and Russian in informal classes from another hostage.

Sickness has forced him to be carried several times in a hammock. Injections have eased ailments in his legs and feet, but at times he cannot walk.

“I had to drag myself to the bathroom for my necessities through the mud with just the strength of my arms because I could not get up,” he wrote in a letter read by his daughter.

‘PLEASE SAVE THIS LIFE’

Blurry photos show Mendieta with former local governor Alan Jara and ex-congressman Luis Eduardo Gechem and other police hostages who have been held for more than five years.

In one letter read by Gechem’s wife he appealed for help from Cuba, which has been host to attempts to broker a peace deal with the ELN, Colombia’s second-largest rebel group.

Gechem, who suffers from a bleeding ulcer and a heart ailment, writes he is even willing to be jailed in Cuba while he recovers his health, his wife said.

“President Fidel Castro, I ask you, beg you to make an additional gesture for humanity,” Gechem wrote. “Comandante Castro, please save this life.”

After a failed attempt at the end of the year, Chavez last week helped negotiate the release of Rojas and Gonzalez, who were held for nearly six years by the FARC, which Washington brands a drug-trafficking terrorist group.

Rojas gave birth to a child in captivity who was taken from her months after he was born. They were reunited on Sunday.

Chavez, a foe of Washington, has stirred tensions with Colombia by demanding Uribe recognize the FARC’s political status and has urged foreign governments to take the group off their lists of terrorist organizations.

Uribe’s government says that could only happen when the FARC commits to a peace process.

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“This shows the horror and infamy to which the FARC submits those held in its power. For us it is clear the need for an immediate way out of this,” Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo told reporters on a visit to Costa Rica.

The rebels, who began as a peasant army fighting for socialism in the 1960s, are insisting Uribe pull troops from an big area of southwest Colombia to facilitate any hostage deal.

But Uribe, a hardliner whose father was killed in a botched FARC kidnapping more than 20 years ago, has refused, saying creating such a safe haven would let the guerrillas regroup.

Reporting by Patrick Markey in Bogota, additional reporting by John McPhaul in San Mateo, editing by Eric Walsh

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