LA MACARENA, Colombia — Under a driving rain in this rebel-held southern town, Colombia's most powerful guerrilla army freed 242 war prisoners Thursday — a gesture before U.N. and other envoys that could boost peace talks to end a 37-year civil war.
The release of the soldiers and police officers, following a government-rebel swap of 73 ailing prisoners earlier this month, is the most visible result of 2 1/2 years of talks between President Andres Pastrana's government and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC.
"We were in hell, and now we've been brought back to life," said Carlos Flores, a soldier seized by rebels more than three years ago in jungles not far from La Macarena.
"I was so happy I could not sleep last night," said Giovanni Sarmiento, another of the released soldiers. "I laid down in my hammock but I could not close my eyes."
After listening to lengthy speeches delivered by armed and olive-clad FARC commanders, the captured servicemen finally heard the long-awaited words.
"From this moment on you are in the hands of the International Red Cross," declared Jorge Briceno, the burly military commander of the 16,000-strong rebel group.
The police and soldiers were handed over to Red Cross officials and presidential peace commissioner Camilo Gomez.
They were then marched from a large open air corral onto trucks driven by the rebels to a nearby airstrip, some of the prisoners shouting in unison: "long live liberty, long live peace." Many could barely contain their joy.
The freed prisoners, who spent their final days in captivity at a makeshift prison camp nearby, were boarded in groups of about 40 onto planes, which shuttled them to a military base in the town of Melgar, 54 miles southwest of the capital, Bogota. Anxious family members had been waiting all day there to welcome them.
At the base, servicemen and their families smiled, hugged and cried.
John Edgar Angulo, a 24-year-old soldier, held tight the three-year-old son who was a newborn baby when he last saw him. "He was my strength during my entire captivity," Angulo said.
Pastrana, in a speech to raucus applause, welcomed the freed servicemen as "heroes" and criticized the FARC for its treatment of the prisoners. The president held up one of the rope neck collars that rebels used to prevent them from escaping, and then cut it in two with scissors.
Pastrana then waded into the crowd, where jubilant soldiers and police tossed him into the air and caught him as he came down.
Negotiators are hoping Thursday's release could lead to other advances, such as a temporary cease-fire or a rebel halt to the use of indiscriminate weapons, before Pastrana completes his four-year term 14 months from now.
Still, the South American country is believed to be many years away from an accord to end a civil war involving the FARC, other rebel factions and rival paramilitary forces — and which claims at least 3,000 lives a year.
The FARC is calling the prisoner release a gesture of peace. Critics charge the guerrillas are only trying to rid themselves of the heavy burden of keeping the prisoners and to shore up flagging public support for a peace process that has yielded the FARC huge benefits.
La Macarena, a town of 3,000 residents, is part of a Switzerland-sized region the FARC has openly controlled under a peace concession granted by Pastrana at the outset of the talks.
Skepticism about the peace process was not likely to dampen the enthusiasm of the freed servicemen or their families.
Before bedding down late Wednesday, the prisoners started a huge bonfire and tossed clothing, notebooks and other bad memories of captivity on it to celebrate their impending freedom.
"I want to be new again, I don't want to take with me anything from here," said Ivan Medina, a 24-year-old policeman who was captured in August 1998 when the FARC overran an anti-narcotics base in Colombia's southern plains.
Nearly 20,000 peasants arrived at La Macarena to witness the event Thursday, most of them bused in by the FARC.
"It's a good thing (the prisoners) are going free and hopefully there will be peace because we peasants are the ones who suffer the most from the war," said Antonio Mejia, 73, who made a 10-hour bus trip to La Macarena from his village.
At the release ceremony, rebels sang their anthem and raised a red Communist Party flag along with a red, yellow and blue banner with the FARC's insignia.
Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, the FARC's aging founder and commander, was in attendance along with diplomats from the United Nations and 10 mostly Latin American and European countries who are trying to facilitate the peace process.
The U.S. government, which has ruled out any contact with the FARC and is providing military aid to Colombia's armed forces, was not invited to send an envoy.
In his speech, senior rebel commander Joaquin Gomez said the release showed the peace process is producing "positive results." Gomez called for the negotiations to produce a "government of reconciliation and national reconstruction" that would preside over sweeping reforms to attack poverty and political corruption.
The FARC has said it plans to free 60 other prisoners in coming days, but would still hold about 42 police and soldiers hostage.