January 12, 2008 / 12:32 AM / 10 years ago

Colombian tried to escape rebels with Betancourt

BOGOTA (Reuters) - A Colombian woman freed by rebels after nearly six years in captivity said on Friday she tried to escape with her friend, French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, and their captors used jungle snakes to punish them.

The nighttime escape plan crumbled when they got lost in the darkness. They blamed each other and fell out over the failed attempt while the guerrillas disciplined them by throwing snakes, tarantulas and even a dead tiger into their bunks.

The episode recounted by the 44-year-old Clara Rojas is one of many harrowing experiences she described having during her captivity. The Marxist guerrillas handed her and another hostage over to the left-wing government of neighboring Venezuela on Thursday.

“We could not leave the area around our camp because we could not find our way in the darkness, so we failed,” Rojas told Colombian radio from the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, where she is undergoing medical checks before returning to Colombia.

The rebels hold hundreds of hostages for ransom and political leverage as part of their four-decade-old war against the state, which has been fueled over the past 20 years by Colombia’s multibillion-dollar cocaine trade.

When they were taken in February 2002, Rojas was running for vice president on the same ticket as presidential candidate Betancourt, who is still in captivity.

Rojas said she made up with Betancourt after the dispute over their failed escape, and she was the first person Rojas told when she got pregnant by one of her guerrilla captors in 2003.

When she gets back to Colombia, Rojas said she will head straight for her 3-year-old son, Emmanuel, who has been living in a Bogota foster home, and give him a long overdue hug.

Emmanuel was taken from her when he was 8 months old and placed by the rebels with a local peasant family, which then turned the child over to state child welfare officials. Rojas said she had lost contact with the father while in captivity.

TERROR AND BARBED WIRE

Many of the hostages held by Colombian rebels are kept chained in barbed-wire camps and are terrified by encroaching army artillery and machine-gun fire, said former lawmaker Consuelo Gonzalez, captured in 2001 and released on Thursday along with Rojas.

Gonzalez said she was constantly afraid she would be killed by bombs or bullets from Colombian air force helicopters.

“(Kidnapped) soldiers and police live chained all day by the neck,” Gonzalez told Colombia’s Caracol Radio. “Whatever they have to do, wherever they have to go, to bathe, to wash their clothes, they carry their chains.”

“We lived in horrible situations of risk, of high risk,” she said. “We practically felt the bombs going off only a few meters (yards) from where we were. Army helicopters firing machine guns also came very close. Living in war is a horror.”

Gonzalez’s husband died while she was held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the Andean country’s largest guerrilla group that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on Friday should no longer be branded a terrorist organization.

Rojas and Gonzalez trekked for 20 days with a small group of armed rebels before reaching a forest clearing where they were picked up by Venezuelan helicopters painted with symbols of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Colombia’s government says it wants to swap high-profile captives like Betancourt and three Americans snatched in 2003 for jailed rebels. But the two sides are deadlocked over conditions for a hostage exchange.

In a video released by the FARC last year, Betancourt appeared gaunt and depressed. She told her mother in a letter she was barely eating and her hair was falling out in clumps.

Reporting by Hugh Bronstein and Luis Jaime Acosta

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