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Colombia 'milestone' as FARC frees captives after over a decade

Jose Miguel Gomez / Reuters

Soldiers and police officials held hostage by the FARC rebels arrive at Villavicencio's airport after being freed Monday.

Colombia's FARC rebels freed 10 members of the armed forces held hostage in jungle prison camps for more than a decade on Monday, the last of a group the drug-funded group had used as bargaining chips to pressure the government.

The four soldiers and six policemen were released to a humanitarian mission led by the International Committee of the Red Cross in what the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia called a gesture of peace.

Wearing olive fatigues and seeming well fed and relatively healthy, the 10 men stepped off a helicopter provided by Brazil after the Marxist rebels freed them in a remote area of southern Colombia.

Following their successful recovery from the jungle, the hostages were taken to the city of Villavicencio, received by medics of the security forces and some immediately reunited with family members in the VIP lounge of the small airport, according to a report on local English language news website Colombia Reports.

It said the release marked a “milestone” in the Colombia conflict.

Smiling and joking with a medic, one soldier left the aircraft draped in the Colombian flag and skipping with joy. Each carried a plastic bag of belongings and one was accompanied by what appeared to be a small pig that had been his pet in the jungle. Another had what looked like a monkey on his shoulder.

"To these victims of the intolerance and cruelty of the guerrillas, soldiers and policemen of Colombia, welcome to freedom," President Juan Manuel Santos said from the presidential palace. "Freedom has been long delayed, but now it's yours."

The release could signal that the FARC is taking tentative steps toward a bid for talks that may end Latin America's oldest insurgency after five decades of killing and destroying economic infrastructure.

But many Colombians remain skeptical that the guerrilla group, which is still believed to be holding as many as 700 civilian hostages for ransom, will lay down its weapons after having used previous peace talks to strengthen their forces.

The logistics of feeding and moving hostages has become more difficult for the FARC as an increasingly effective U.S.-backed military offensive has killed its leaders and driven the guerrillas back into ever more remote regions.

As a result, the police say, cases of kidnapping for ransom have fallen 90 percent since 2000 to 208 incidents last year, while the number of extortion cases surged 33 percent in 2011 from the previous year.

Reuters and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

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