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Page last updated at 18:00 GMT, Sunday, 28 March 2010 19:00 UK

Farc rebels poised to free Colombian soldier

Helcopters at Villavicencio airport
Negotiators and helicopters wait at Villavicencio for the release

Vanessa Buschschluter
BBC News, Villavicencio, Colombia

Relatives of a kidnapped Colombian soldier have arrived in the city of Villavicencio ahead of his planned release.

Colombia's main leftist rebel group, the Farc, said it would proceed with its plans to unilaterally free Private Josue Daniel Calvo, 22, on Sunday.

A negotiating team will fly by helicopter to a set of co-ordinates given by the rebels for the handover.

Pte Calvo was seized in April 2009 and is reported to be in poor health.

Opposition Senator Piedad Cordoba said plans were also on schedule for the release on Tuesday of Sgt Pablo Emilio Moncayo, who has been in captivity for 12 years.

The negotiating team, made up of representatives of the Catholic Church, the International Red Cross and Senator Cordoba, will leave Villavicencio's Vanguardia airport by helicopter for a location chosen by the rebels.

The commander of Colombia's armed forces, Gen Freddy Padilla, had earlier announced a 36-hour halt to military operations in the southern part of the country where Pte Calvo is being held.

Pte Calvo is expected to be taken to Villavicencio, in Meta province, where he will be reunited with his family before being flown to a military hospital.

According to the rebels, he is suffering from a leg wound which has made it hard for him to walk and forced the guerrillas to carry him.

Pte Calvo is the youngest member of the Colombian security forces to be held by the Farc (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

Negotiations for the release of Pte Calvo and Sgt Moncayo have gone on for almost a year.

'Horrible conditions'

Colombian peace commissioner Frank Pearl said he hoped Sgt Moncayo - who after 12 years in captivity is one of the longest held hostages - would be released on Monday night or early Tuesday.

Mr Pearl told BBC News Online that the conditions Sgt Moncayo has had to endure during his time with the Farc were "horrible".

Colombian peace commissioner Frank Pearl
Frank Pearl said conditions for hostages were "terrible"

"He has been kidnapped for 12 years. Think of what we've done for the last 12 years. He has lost a very important part of his life. He has been chained to a tree," he said.

Asked if the planned release of the two soldiers would lead to more such steps or negotiations with the rebels, he said the government did not want to tackle more than one issue at a time in fear of endangering the handover.

"After Tuesday, we'll have a new agenda," he said.

Sgt Moncayo's father, Gustavo, has walked almost the length of the country to raise awareness of his son's captivity, often carrying chains around his neck and wrists to highlight his plight.

Alan Jara, the former governor of Meta province, has also been a vocal supporter of the campaign to free the two soldiers.

He was himself kidnapped by the Farc and held for more than seven years before the group voluntarily released him last year.

'Critical moment'

He told BBC News Online that news of the planned release of the two men evoked strong feelings in him.

"It was only a year ago that I was in those same helicopters being taken from the jungle to Vanguardia airport in Villavicencio. It makes me relive the moment of my liberation second by second."

Alan Jara
Alan Jara was held by Farc rebels for more than seven years

He said he believed that at this moment, just hours away from possible freedom, the two soldiers would be very stressed.

"It's a critical moment", he said.

He recalled how last minute hitches prompted the Farc to tell him he would not be freed and would be taken back to the jungle hideout.

In the end, Mr Jara's release proceeded as planned, but not until he had endured another anxious 24-hour wait in the jungle for the arrival of the helicopters carrying the negotiating team.

"I was in this clearing, like a football field in the middle of the jungle, and when I saw the helicopters, it was a very strong moment. I wanted to cry, I wanted to smile, I didn't know what to do."

'Moment of shock'

Mr Jara was then shown a picture of his wife and his 15-year old son, whom he had not seen since the boy was seven years old.

"It was a shock to me, he looked like another person, not my small child," Mr Jara remembered.

He said adjusting to life back home had been easy with the support of his family and friends.

Negotiations are still continuing for the handover of the remains of a police officer who died in captivity.

Major Julian Ernesto Guevara's body was originally to be returned as part of the release of the two soldiers, but Senator Cordoba said the timeline for that handover seemed to have slipped.



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