Two Brazilian military helicopters bearing Red Cross markings arrived Tuesday in Colombia where they will be used to fly out five hostages set for release by Marxist rebels.
Authorities in Bogota have anticipated the handover of the five hostages since late last year, when they announced that the release by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was imminent, and that Brazil was ready to help.
The FARC announced on December 18 that it would free two politicians, two soldiers and a policeman, but the guerrilla group had not given an exact date as they sought to work out security protocols for the handover.
Colombian ex-senator Piedad Cordoba, who traveled to the Brazilian city of Sao Gabriel da Cachoeira from where the choppers departed, was part of the mission led by a delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
"We're at the airport in Villavicencio along with the Brazilian military crew, the Red Cross and the Colombians for Peace" rights organization, Cordoba wrote on her Twitter account minutes after landing.
Cordoba has acted as an intermediary in the past but was expelled from the Colombian legislature due to her links with the guerrillas.
To facilitate the release, the armed forces suspended military operations in a huge area of the country's south from 2300 GMT Tuesday to 1100 GMT Thursday, officials told AFP at the Villavicencio airport.
The two aircraft and their crews were loaned by the Brazilian Air Force to the Red Cross, and the helicopters were seen on the tarmac with the red and white emblems of the Red Cross on their fuselages.
This is the third time Brazil has participated in a FARC hostage release operation.
The delegation, given the green light by the Colombian government and FARC, will depart Wednesday on a flight to an as-yet unannounced location in the Colombian jungle to pick up Mark Vaquero, a 33-year-old councilman.
Vaquero's relatives had gathered in Villavicencio in anticipation of the release.
"We are jubilant, and counting down the hours until we can hug him," Vaquero's wife Olga Tobo told reporters.
FARC is then expected to release Marine Henry Lopez and councilman Armando Acuno on Friday, followed by senior police officer Guillermo Solorzano and army corporal Salin Sanmiguel on Sunday.
The five were kidnapped by the FARC in several episodes between 2007 and 2010.
FARC, which has been at war with the Colombian government since 1964, has between 7,000 and 11,000 fighters and is holding at least 19 soldiers and police officers hostage.
The unilateral release will be the first by the guerrillas since President Juan Manuel Santos took office last August.
Santos said Monday night that while he welcomed the impending release he made it clear that the FARC needed to do more if it wanted to enter into peace talks with Bogota.
"I must say this is not enough. Colombians demand the immediate release of all hostages," Santos said.
The rebels would need to make concrete assurances that they were abandoning their fight, including "the renunciation of terrorism, kidnapping, drug trafficking, extortion and intimidation," Santos said in a speech marking his first six months in office.
For years the rebels have failed to convince the government to swap the hostages for jailed FARC prisoners.
The latest release occurred in March 2010 when the FARC handed over a sergeant whom they had held hostage for 12 years. In the 18 months prior to that at least four hostages were freed by FARC rebels who turned themselves in to police.
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