BOGOTA, Colombia – A 62-year-old lawmaker held captive eight years by leftist rebels walked to freedom in a western Colombia jungle on Sunday along with the young guerrilla commander who had been his jailer.
President Alvaro Uribe said the rebel and his girlfriend would be rewarded with cash and asylum in France.
Oscar Tulio Lizcano is the first Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia hostage to gain freedom since the July 2 rescue of former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors.
His escape is yet another blow to Latin America's last major rebel army, which is battling record desertions under withering pressure from Colombia's U.S.-backed military.
The white-bearded Lizcano encountered a military road checkpoint three days after escaping with the leader of the unit that held him.
He looked haggard in a grimy black shirt and muddy training pants during a brief news conference at a military base in the western city of Cali. He apologized for his somewhat incoherent speech, saying his captors had forbidden him to speak. He thanked "the person who had the courage, the valor to leave with me."
"I was really sick," he said, collapsed in a chair beside a standing Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos and police and military commanders. He said he had eaten little while on the run with his 28-year-old captor, known only by the alias "Isaza."
Lizcano was taken to a clinic, where doctors said he was dehydrated and had signs of malnutrition.
Santos said the escape followed the Oct. 10 desertion of a second rebel, alias "Moroco," from the camp where Lizcano was held. He said that guerrilla disclosed Lizcano's precise whereabouts to authorities, who already had a rough idea of the location and had been strangling rebel supply routes.
Santos put their number at about eight women and six men. Lizcano said food was so scarce in the camp that he ate a lot palm hearts and sugar cane.
Colombia's military has put withering pressure on the guerrillas known as the FARC since early 2007, killing or capturing top commanders and spurring record desertions and betrayals among rebels with lucrative reward offers.
Uribe said "Isaza" would receive a reward — Santos put it at about US$400,000 — and asylum in France along with his girlfriend.
He made the announcement as he prepared to meet in Cali with leaders of some 30,000 Indians who had marched to the city demanding land and justice in the murders of indigenous leaders.
The young rebel, a patch over his left eye covering a 4-year-old wound, beamed at the news.
Late last year, France offered asylum to any FARC rebels who demobilized, part of an effort to secure the release of hostages including Betancourt, a dual French national.
"The French government has now told us that it accepts having Isaza in France," Uribe said.
Lizcano was kidnapped on Aug. 5, 2000 while inaugurating a soccer field in his home province of Caldas ahead of municipal elections. The government's peace commissioner, Luis Carlos Restrepo, had said last week without providing details that FARC deserters had reported Lizcano's health was delicate.
The rescue comes nearly four months after Betancourt and the three Americans were freed in a sophisticated ruse in which Colombian military agents posing as humanitarian workers helicoptered 15 FARC-held hostages to freedom without a shot being fired.
Informed of Lizcano's freedom, Betancourt told Caracol radio that it should send a message to the FARC that "it should change its attitude, that we should get a peace process going in Colombia."
Efforts to negotiate a prisoner swap were frozen months before her rescue and the government has said it has made no efforts to contact the rebels and resume them.
The FARC still holds at least 20 high-value politicians, police officers and soldiers — including a provincial governor and a police colonel, some of whom have been held for more than a decade.
It is now down to an estimated 9,000 fighters by government count — half its strength when Uribe first took office in 2002.