By Nathan Guttman, Yossi Melman and Agencies 23.12.2003 BOGOTA – Colombian ELN (National Liberation Army) rebels yesterday released the four Israelis and a Briton they had kidnapped 102 days ago, handing them over to a church-led humanitarian commission.
Benny Daniel, Ido Guy, Erez Altawil and Orpaz Ohayon and Briton Mark Henderson appeared to be in good health as they boarded a military helicopter in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains, Israeli Ambassador to Colombia Yair Recanati said. They were flown to a military airport in Bogota, where they were welcomed by their .and embassy representatives. The release operation proceeded without a hitch, with both sides keeping their undertakings. The Colombian army agreed to withdraw its troops from the release area, while the rebels brought the five hostages there at the agreed time, keeping their promise to end the kidnapping by Christmas. Word of the place where the hostages were to be released was given only at the last moment to the Roman Catholic Church representatives who served as mediators in the negotiations to free the hostages. Dario Echeverry, the senior Catholic Church representative in Colombia, was on the helicopter that flew to the release point. Behind it was a helicopter with Colombian journalists. When the pick-up helicopter landed, there was no trace of the kidnappers, who had hurried away for fear the army would return to the area and try to capture them. An hour later the helicopter with the freed captives came down at the small town of Valledupar to refuel, and the group spoke to Ambassador Recanati and their excited relatives, waiting in Bogota. A member of the reconciliation committee on the helicopter said the hikers’ were in good health but suffering from exhaustion, after having marched on foot to the release point. After a short break and television interviews, the hikers boarded another helicopter that flew them to the military airport in Bogota, where their families awaited them. The hikers were yet to face a debriefing with Colombian security. „We can heave a sigh of relief. This was a very tense period,” Recanati said yesterday. For the Israelis the affair may be over but for the Columbian government and ELN it could mark a turning point. The ELN group said the abduction was its most successful political yet, because it brought an international humanitarian delegation to examine the living conditions in the Sierra Nevada. The ELN leaders yesterday issued a statement expressing a wish to open talks with the government, with the mediation of the church and reconciliation committee. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom issued a statement expressing Israel’s gratitude to the government of Columbia and President Alvaro Uribe and the church figures who negotiated the release. Shalom also thanked the the Foreign Ministry team and the staff at the Israeli embassy in Bogota, headed by Recanati, „who spared no effort in working for the release of the hostages and was available for the hostages’ families during their most difficult hours.” „The release of the hostages during Hanukkah,” Shalom said, „adds light and joy to every home in Israel. I hope the families who have been reunited with their loved ones will return to us and light the last Hanukkah candle here in Israel.” BPI.