Colombian official escapes rebels after six years


January 5, 2007

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- Former Colombian Cabinet minister Fernando Araujo escaped from six years in rebel captivity by fleeing through the jungle for five days after troops attacked the guerrillas who held him, he said Friday.

The former development minister said he escaped Sunday from a guerrilla camp as army and marine troops battled members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. He then walked five days through the mountainous jungle to the hamlet of San Agustin, 350 miles north of Bogota, where he was found by troops.

"When the gunfight began, I told myself either I go now or they kill me," a calm-voiced Araujo told RCN television on Friday before being reunited with his family. "It was a decision of life and death."

Araujo said he was in good health, but suffering from hiccups and exhaustion because he had not eaten in five days.

"I escaped five days ago with only the clothes I was wearing, not a drop of water, without a blanket, without a machete -- only with my fingernails to find the route that would return me to freedom," he said.

Araujo was kidnapped on December 5, 2000, while exercising in the Caribbean coastal city of Cartagena.

President Alvaro Uribe, applauding the action of his troops, said an informant's tip led the military to the guerrilla camp. He said the decision to launch a raid was authorized by Araujo's family.

Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said that six guerrillas died in the battle.

Araujo said he was the only hostage held at the camp and knew nothing about the fate of some 60 other political hostages the FARC hopes to swap for hundreds of jailed rebels.

Among those being held are former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who also holds French citizenship, and three American defense contractors kidnapped when their plane crashed in the jungle during an anti-narcotics mission in 2003.

The FARC has been fighting the Colombian government for 42 years, and has kidnapped thousands of people for ransom.