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Colombia rebels free politician

5 February 09 23:19 GMT

Left-wing rebels in Colombia have released a politician they had been holding for almost seven years.

Sigifredo Lopez, who was seized by Farc guerrillas in April 2002, was handed over to a mission led by the Red Cross before being flown to the city of Cali.

He is the last of six high-profile hostages the rebels had announced in December they were planning to release.

Mr Lopez was the last politician held by the Farc, but they are believed to be holding some 700 people for ransom.

Mr Lopez was kidnapped in 2002 from Cali's state assembly. Eleven other politicians seized with him died in 2007 while in captivity.

Rapturous welcome

A helicopter carrying three Red Cross delegates and Senator Piedad Cordoba, who has been involved in negotiations for the hostages' release, took off on Thursday morning local time to collect Mr Lopez.

When he touched down at an airstrip in Cali, he was mobbed by family and friends - including his two sons.

He raised his hand in the air and told journalists: "I'm fine, as long as I am alive and free, nothing else matters."

His release comes after four members of the armed forces were freed on Sunday and a former governor on Tuesday.

However, the Farc is thought to be still holding hundreds of other hostages - including about two dozen army officers and members of the security forces.

In the wake of the latest releases, Senator Cordoba promised to continue pressing the rebels to free the rest of the captives.

'Far from beaten'

The guerrillas, who have suffered recent setbacks as the government drives them further into mountain and jungle areas, are seeking to regain political relevancy with these unilateral releases, says the BBC's Jeremy McDermott in Medellin.

However, Alan Jara, who was freed on Tuesday, said the rebels were far from beaten and many young people continued to join their ranks.

He accused President Alvaro Uribe of doing nothing to win the hostages' freedom.

The former governor called for urgent moves to exchange hostages, saying those held in the jungle could wait no longer.

Mr Uribe has refused to accept the rebels' conditions for swapping hostages which include pulling troops back to create a safe haven, arguing that this would allow the Farc to regroup and rearm.

Meanwhile, investigators hope Mr Lopez will be able to shed some light on the deaths of the 11 colleagues who were kidnapped with him.

They were shot dead in June 2007. The rebels said that the hostages died in crossfire when one of their camps was attacked.

But the government accused the rebels of murder, saying there had been no military operations in the area at the time. It is believed Mr Lopez was being held at another camp.

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