Escaped Hostage Was Held Alongside 3 Americans by Colombia Rebels

A police officer who fled to freedom after eight years as a hostage of leftist rebels said Wednesday that he was held until late last month with a former presidential candidate and three American military contractors.

Jhon Frank Pinchao told reporters he last saw the three Americans — Marc Gonsalves, Tom Howes and Keith Stansell — and former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt on April 28, the day of his escape from a jungle camp.

Pinchao said Gonsalves was suffering from hepatitis, but he provided no other details about the Americans, Betancourt or the other eight politicians and police officers held with him at the time of his escape.

Pinchao said he fled his captors, guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, near the southeastern town of Mitu, where he had been taken hostage during a rebel attack.

He said he had to walk, swim and crawl for 17 days through Colombia's remote Amazon jungle before running into an anti-narcotics police patrol on Wednesday.

At a news conference with Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, Pinchao told reporters that he slept tied to another prisoner, with a thin metal chain tightened around his neck.

Holding up a chain similar to the one he said was used, he said he took advantage of a lapse by his captors to escape from the jungle camp.

"I hope it's not my fault that the others face difficulties now," Pinchao said, breaking into tears.

The three Americans were captured in February 2003 by FARC when their plane went down during a surveillance mission in southern Colombia.

Betancourt, a congresswoman who campaigned against corruption, was kidnapped on Feb. 23, 2002 while campaigning for president in the south. A dual French-Colombian citizen, she has become a cause celebre in Europe.

Pinchao, who missed the birth of his child during his long captivity, said he and the other hostages were moved every three or four months to new camps. In one of those jungle marches, he came across Clara Rojas, Betancourt's campaign manager, who he said gave birth to a child named Emmanuel.

Betancourt and the Americans are among some 60 political prisoners the FARC is using as political pawns to negotiate an exchange for the release of hundreds of jailed rebels.

Pinchao was kidnapped in November 1998, when 700 rebels attacked and held the frontier Amazon town of Mitu for three days, killing 53 people and taking another 61 hostage, Cantillo said. All but seven of the hostages had been released.