VILLAVICENCIO, COLOMBIA – Colombia's main rebel group freed what it said were its last 10 military and police hostages, offering a goodwill gesture to the Juan Manuel Santos administration.
The men had spent between 12 and 14 years in jungle prisons, captured with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia was at the height of its military strength.
But Latin America's oldest and most potent guerrilla band has since been weakened by Colombia's U.S.-backed military and Monday's release of six police and four soldiers highlighted its desire for a peaceful solution.
Flown from a secret jungle rendezvous aboard a loaned Brazilian air force helicopter emblazoned with the Red Cross logo, the freed captives waved jubilantly.
Some jumped for joy on the tarmac before reunions with relatives. Nurses helped others walk, while pets accompanied some: a peccary, a monkey, two small birds. A few wore the Colombian flag over their shoulders. Their loved ones were overjoyed.
"I shouted! I jumped up and down!" said Olivia Solarte when got first word her 41-year-old son, police officer Trujillo had been freed. He'd been held since July 1999.
The group was flown to Bogota where other relatives were waiting along with obligatory hospital stays for medical checks.
The rebel group, known as the FARC, had announced Monday's liberation on Feb. 26 in tandem with a halt in ransom kidnappings as a revenue source.
Santos called the release "a step in the right direction, a very important step" but cautioned against "pure speculation" that it augured peace talks.
He said he wants proof the FARC, which took up arms in 1964, is truly abandoning ransom kidnapping.
"When the government considers that sufficient conditions and guarantees exist to begin a process that brings an end to the conflict the country will know," he said.
To begin with, the government wants an accounting of two other security force members captured by the FARC in 1998 and 1999. It also wants a reckoning of ransom kidnap victims held by the FARC, along with their freedom.
The head of Colombia's anti-kidnapping police puts the number at least six, including four Chinese oil workers seized last June. Other officials put the number closer to two dozen.
The citizens' watchdog group Fundación País Libre maintains a list of at least 400 people the FARC kidnapped or has otherwise held against their will since 1996 who were never freed. It doesn't expunge a name from its records until the person is released or a body is found.
Two serious government-FARC peace negotiations failed over the past three decades. And although the rebels have praised Santos' willingness to address land reform and return stolen property to landless peasants, recent weeks have seen an upsurge in violence in the conflict.
The FARC killed at least 11 soldiers in a mid-March attack in Arauca near the Venezuelan border and the military responded with two precision bombings on rebel camps that killed more than 60 insurgents.
The rebels have in recent years suffered their worst setbacks ever, beginning when Santos was defense minister from 2006-2009 and thanks to billions in U.S. military assistance and training.
Their main source of funding is the cocaine trade and military pressure has made holding kidnap victims increasingly difficult for the FARC.
Monday's mission was brokered by leftist former Sen. Piedad Córdoba, a friend of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez who has served as a go-between in the release of 20 FARC hostages since January 2008.
The FARC has only publicly acknowledged holding captives it considered "exchangeable:" police, soldiers or politicians it held for political leverage, hoping to swap them for imprisoned rebels.
It held scores of such prisoners in the late 1990s when it controlled about half the countryside but gradually released them all, never obtaining the hoped-for exchange.
Some captives were rescued. Franco-Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors in 2008 were freed in a bold ruse involving Colombian soldiers posing as members of a phony international humanitarian group. But others, at least 25, died in captivity, many killed by FARC insurgents when rescuers real or imagined neared.
Among those in attendance for Monday's release was Rigoberta Menchú, the Guatemalan rights activist who won the 1992 Nobel Peace prize.
She said it is now time for Colombia's government to respond to the FARC's gesture with its own display of political willingness to attain peace.
But analysts caution that peace talks, even back-channel negotiations, could be a long time coming.
Many don't believe they could happen before 2014 presidential elections.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.