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Last Updated: Monday, 22 December, 2003, 23:01 GMT
Colombia hostages freed at last
Mark Henderson
Mark Henderson makes a call after his release
A Briton and four Israelis have been released by Colombian rebels, 102 days after they were taken hostage.

Mark Henderson was among eight tourists held by the National Liberation Army (ELN) on 12 September, during a trek.

The 32-year-old TV producer told his parents over the phone: "I'm absolutely fine. About two stone lighter." His parents said his return from the South American jungle to Pateley Bridge in Yorkshire would be an "extra Christmas present".

Ladies and gentlemen, we've got him, he's on the aeroplane
Mr Henderson's father, Christopher

Mr Henderson's mother, Sharelle, became emotional after receiving the news at the family home, watched by a number of reporters.

Later she told BBC One's Ten O'Clock News: "I just felt from the beginning that Mark would be home safely. It's just wonderful.

"It was lovely to hear his voice, he sounded extremely cheerful."

In a reference to US Iraq administrator Paul Bremer's quote about the capture of Saddam Hussein, his father, Christopher, had earlier told reporters: "Ladies and gentlemen, we've got him, he's on the aeroplane."

Mr Henderson's parents spoke to their son soon afterwards, with the recently-released hostage sounding in good spirits.

Hearing about the number of journalists present, Mr Henderson joked: "Are you famous now?"

Mr Henderson's parents
Mr Henderson's parents were jubilant after hearing the news
When his father took the phone and simply said "hi", Mr Henderson quipped "Hi? Three months in the jungle and you say 'hi'. Is that it?"

Mr Henderson, who landed in Valledupar in the first stage of his journey home shortly before 1800 GMT, flew to Bogota later on Monday.

He is awaiting a flight back to Heathrow either on Tuesday or on Christmas Eve.

He told a journalist: "At the moment it's just all a bit confusing and overwhelming."

He said he and the other hostages had been forced to walk for up to 18 hours a day but otherwise had been treated well.

"I wouldn't say that we had been treated badly... sometimes there were problems we didn't want to walk, we were forced to walk a lot. It's very painful, we didn't know what we were walking for."

Mr Henderson said his experience would not put him off foreign travel.

The hostages had been held since September
"I'm not going to come out of this and be frightened, I'm not going to come out of this and think I'm not going to go to certain places. I want to find out more about why we were taken."

He paid tribute to his four Israeli fellow hostages as "four absolutely amazing guys".

In another interview, Mr Henderson said he had been suffering when the decision was taken that the men would be released.

"One of the leaders of the ELN was with us... we literally were at breaking point and he came up to me and said, 'Right, you are being released on Monday',"

In Pateley Bridge the local parish church, which had lit a candle for each day Mr Henderson was held, rang its bells in celebration and the flag of St George was raised.

The BBC's Jeremy McDermott said the humanitarian commissioner who had received the hostages indicated they had walked to the helicopter unaided, but would still get a full health check.

They had been moved from separate locations through the Sierra Nevada mountains to a pick-up point.

Mr Henderson and the four Israelis were seized at gunpoint with three others near the spectacular 2,500-year-old Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) Indian ruins.

Earlier releases

The rebels said they kidnapped the men to publicise the persecution of Indian villagers by rightwing paramilitaries, and not for a ransom.

The ELN and other rebel groups are holding hundreds of Colombian hostages at any given time.

Another Briton, Matthew Scott, 19, also taken with the group, escaped within two days, while a German and Spaniard had already been released.

Speaking from his family home in Clapham, south London, Mr Scott said on Monday: "It will be a complete culture shock for him [Mr Henderson].

"You come out [of the jungle] and there's cameras all in your face and you have not been in civilisation for however long.

"The last time I saw Mark, he was advising me not to escape because the rebels might take it badly but I told him that I was sorry but I had to do it.

"If anything had happened to him I would have felt terrible, especially if it had been as a direct result of me."

Mr Scott spent days alone in the jungle before being found by local tribespeople and brought back to the UK.

The BBC's Robert Nisbet
"Mark Henderson was taken by convoy to the UK ambassador's residence"

In pictures: Hostages' release
22 Dec 03  |  Photo Gallery
'Christmas release' for hostages
20 Dec 03  |  England
Mediators plea for Colombia truce
18 Dec 03  |  Americas
Rebels make new release promise
16 Dec 03  |  North Yorkshire
Colombia rebels free two hostages
25 Nov 03  |  Americas

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