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Colombian hostage freed after nearly 7-year ordeal

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Family greets Sigifredo Lopez, the sixth hostage to be freed by FARC this week
  • Lopez is only survivor of 12 lawmakers who were abducted in April 2002
  • FARC filmed video of audacious mission to kidnap congressmen
  • Eleven of congressmen were killed in captivity in June 2007
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From Karl Penhaul
CNN
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BOGOTA, Colombia (CNN) -- Former hostage Sigifredo Lopez landed in the Colombian city of Palmira to a hero's welcome Thursday afternoon, free after nearly seven years of captivity by Marxist rebels in the jungle.

A Brazilian helicopter takes off Thursday from an airport in Palmira, Colombia, to pick up Sigifredo Lopez.

A Brazilian helicopter takes off Thursday from an airport in Palmira, Colombia, to pick up Sigifredo Lopez.

Lopez was met at the helicopter that ferried him to freedom by his wife and two sons, who cried openly and deeply as they hugged him. One son held his father's head in his hands and spoke to him fervently as he kissed his forehead.

Lopez's mother also hugged him before the freed hostage was swallowed by a mob of family members of other hostages who had died in captivity.

After hugging well-wishers for more than 20 minutes, Lopez climbed into a white Red Cross sport utility vehicle and drove off in a four-vehicle convoy.

The former regional legislator was abducted April 11, 2002, by rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as FARC.

Lopez's release was the sixth unilateral one by the rebels in a week, but few of the kidnappings were as dramatic as the one in which Lopez and 11 other lawmakers were taken.

He is the only one of that group who remains alive.

A video taken by the FARC that day in April 2002 and released in late 2006 shows the first minutes of the bold kidnapping that led to his captivity.

The rebels had been training for months. At a FARC camp, they practiced in Colombian army and police uniforms and made mock-ups of the regional parliament in Cali with plastic tarps and sticks.

A rebel camera was rolling as the 20-strong commando group drove a bus to Cali, Colombia's third-largest city. Salsa music was blaring. Video Watch the FARC footage of the dramatic abduction of Lopez and other lawmakers »

They were posing as government soldiers. Motorcycle outriders cleared the way.

Once they reached the parliament building, they faked a bomb alert.

The bus pulled out in front of the building, and the video shows people running from the perceived threat.

On the video, an unseen rebel is heard to say, "For the deputies, we have a special vehicle."

Twelve congressmen took their seats, believing the military was shepherding them to safety. Minutes passed, and one politician asked where they are headed.

A few minutes later, the muffled reply can be heard: "Ladies and gentlemen. We are the FARC."

Back in the mountains, the hostages were herded aboard a truck. Guerrillas waved and hugged as they celebrated their audacious mission.

In 2003, Lopez and some of the other hostages appeared in a proof-of-life video. One of his colleagues simply wrote, "Until when?" on his hand and held it up to camera.

Another, Jairo Hoyos, sent a prophetic plea to the president: "Mister President. Those who are about to die salute you."

Eleven of the congressmen were killed in captivity in June 2007. The FARC said they died in cross-fire during a military rescue mission. The Colombian army rejects that assertion.

When the bodies were recovered three months later, autopsies showed most had been shot multiple times in the back.

Lopez was the sole survivor. On Thursday night, he may be able to tell the rest of the world what happened that day.

FARC has released five other hostages in the past week. On Tuesday, Alan Jara, the former governor of Colombia's Meta state, arrived at the airport in Villavicencio, southeast of Bogota.

Four hostages -- three police officers and a soldier -- were released over the weekend.

Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba has brokered the releases with the help of the the International Committee of the Red Cross and a group called Colombians for Peace. Brazil also has helped, providing the aircraft used in the releases.

The FARC, the largest and oldest guerrilla group in Colombia, announced the releases December 21 and designated Cordoba as the coordinator. Some analysts see these releases as a first step toward an eventual peace accord. Others suggest this is just another sign that government military gains combined with a tough right-wing political line are gradually beating the FARC into submission.

Colombia has said the rebels are still holding about 700 captives

The government recently has offered rewards to guerrillas who surrender and free hostages. Last month, two guerrillas fled their camp deep in the jungles of southern Colombia, bringing along two captives, a 14-year-old boy and a male adult who were kidnapped in December.

And a July rescue operation freed former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who had been held captive since 2002, along with three American military contractors and 11 Colombian police and military members.

The government has said the FARC's military force has been severely compromised in recent months, but authorities still accuse it of trafficking huge quantities of cocaine to finance its decades-old insurgency.

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Security analysts said FARC, established in the early 1960s, has about 9,000 to 12,000 armed guerillas and several thousand supporters, mostly in rural areas.

The guerrilla group operates mostly in Colombia but has carried out extortion, kidnappings and other activities in Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador, analysts say.

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