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Colombian rebels free 10 hostages

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 9:36 PM EDT, Mon April 2, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The former captives arrive in Bogota
  • NEW: "Welcome to freedom," says President Santos
  • NEW: He calls on the FARC to release its civilian captives
  • All the freed hostages were held for more than a decade

(CNN) -- Ten hostages held by a leftist rebel group in Colombia for more than a decade were freed on Monday in a move that might help push peace talks forward, but was also met with some skepticism in a country home to Latin American's oldest insurgency.

The leftist guerrilla group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC, had pledged to hand over what it says were the last of its government hostages, four soldiers and six police officers. It kept its word.

The former captives arrived in the central city of Villavicencio, where they stepped off a helicopter and walked across the tarmac into the arms of their loved ones, video from CNN affiliate Caracol TV showed.

One of the former captives jumped joyfully, hoisting the Colombian flag. Others walked with the assistance of what looked to be nurses or doctors.

The hostages were flown later to Bogota, the country's capital, Caracol reported.

"Welcome to freedom!" President Juan Manuel Santos said in a speech late Monday, addressing the former hostages. He welcomed their release as a step in the right direction, but said it was not sufficient. He demanded the FARC release of all its hostages.

Hundreds of civilians remain prisoners of the guerrilla group throughout Colombia, according to the nonprofit Free Country Foundation.

The FARC announced plans to release the 10 hostages in February and said it would stop kidnapping civilians for money.

The rebels did not address the fate of its civilian captives then, nor did it renounce kidnapping for political purposes.

"It's not enough to stop kidnapping. They must free the civilian captives -- the hostages that remain under their control," said Santos.

Kidnapping government forces and civilians has been a key strategy of the rebel group in its war against the Colombian government.

Dramatic rescues, escapes and hostage hand-overs have revealed harsh conditions in jungle camps, including stories of prisoners chained to trees, grueling marches between hideouts, torrential rain and blistering sun.

Among the highest profile rescues in recent years was that of Ingrid Betancourt, who was kidnapped in 2002 during her campaign for the presidency. She was freed in a helicopter rescue mission in 2008. Colombian commandos posed as humanitarian aid workers to liberate the group, which included three U.S. military contractors and 11 Colombian police and military members.

Monday's rescue began when two Brazilian helicopters arrived in Villavicencio for the scheduled hand-over.

Hours later, delayed by heavy morning rains, one of the choppers took off toward an unspecified location provided by the rebels. The team of intermediaries onboard included Red Cross officials and a former Colombian senator who wiped away tears and waved as the helicopter left.

"We are extremely pleased with the success of the operation, which in a single day allowed for the reunion of 10 families," said Jordi Raich, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation. He promised continued support.

"After so many years of separation, there is still a lot to do to help them overcome the trauma of this period of time that they have not been together, without news, to help them reintegrate into society," Raich said.

The leftist rebels have been at war with the Colombian government since the 1960s. While severely weakened in recent years, the group has continued to carry out kidnappings and attack security forces.

CNN's Catherine E. Shoichet, Marilia Brocchetto, Luisa Calad and journalists Fernando Ramos and Toby Muse contributed to this report.

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