BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — The Colombian police sergeant who saved himself when leftist rebels killed four fellow captives said Monday that he ran for his life into the jungle while his companions ran the other way.
Luis Alberto Erazo, who spent nearly 12 years as a prisoner of Colombia's main rebel force, said the leader of the guerrillas guarding the five captives had always told them that if government troops surprised the group the rebels would protect them.
But when he heard gunfire Saturday, Erazo turned and ran for the jungle. Government troops had engaged the rebels' outer security ring in combat.
"The only thing that occurred to me was to run for it," he said from the safety of a police hospital bed in the capital, Bogota.
Erazo was folding a towel when gunshots rang out. He felt what turned out to be a bullet graze his face and something sting his neck, he said in an interview with Caracol TV, his left cheek bandaged with gauze.
He said he thought the shots were coming from a guerrilla sentinel.
So he ran for his life, chased by two rebels whom he managed to evade before hiding under a tree for hours.
The other four captives, all of whom had been held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, for at least 12 years, were apart from him and ran toward their guerrilla jailers, Erazo said.
Colombian officials said three of the men were executed with gunshots to the head, the fourth with two shots to the back.
Human Rights Watch issued a statement Monday calling the killings "a war crime" and saying those responsible should be brought to justice.
Defense Ministry officials said military units acting on intelligence that FARC had hostages in the area happened upon the rebels holding the five during what amounted to a reconnaissance mission.
The commander of the FARC's 63 front, which held the men, had told the five that if ever there was a firefight "we should run toward (the rebels) because they would get us out of there and deliver us safe and sound to our families," Erazo said.
His companions heeded that advice "and they were killed in a cowardly manner, without risk," he added. One of them, Capt. Edgar Duarte, had a bad foot and couldn't walk.
It is a long-standing FARC policy to kill captives rather than allow them to be liberated.
Prosecutor Arturo Jose Bolanos, who filed charges against a female guerrilla captured during Saturday's fighting, said soldiers stumbled on the rebels by chance and the guerrillas were able to cover their retreat with gunfire.
When the soldiers finally reached the rebel camp, they found the slain captives, Bolanos said. Duarte was in his shelter with his hands crossed, the other three bodies lay several yards (meters) away, the prosecutor said.
Erazo was slightly wounded in the cheek by a bullet and had a small wound in the back of his neck from a grenade fragment, Col. Adriana Camero, director of the police hospital where Erazo was recuperating, told the AP.
"He's a bit anxious, with some sadness, with mixed emotions at having regained freedom but having lost his friends," Camero said.
Erazo told the AP and another international media organization Monday afternoon that he believed most of the young rebels who guarded him had been "obliged" to join the insurgency.
"Who is going to be happy in a hell like that? Eating poorly, living poorly and getting sick," he said.
Erazo, a balding 48-year-old, looked pallid and was missing two front teeth, which he said had simply fallen out during his long captivity.
The FARC took up arms in 1964. It is composed largely of peasants in a country with high rural poverty where land is concentrated in the hands of few and funds itself through cocaine trafficking, kidnapping and extortion.
Analysts see few prospects for a military solution to the conflict despite a series of major setbacks for the rebels including the combat death on Nov. 4 of the FARC's top commander, Alfonso Cano.
Erazo said he had spent the past decade with Jose Libio Martinez, one of the slain men and the longest-held of the FARC's captives. He had been held since being taken prisoner on Dec. 21, 1997 on a remote southern mountaintop called Cerro Patascoy.
The son who never met him, 13-year-old Johan Steven Martinez, publicly rebuked the FARC on Sunday.
"Gentlemen of the FARC," he said, "you have broken my wings, broken my dreams, the longing to know my father personally."
"I did not expect that you would kill him," he added. "I never expected that you would send him to me in a box."
He implored the rebels: "It's time for you to throw away those weapons that have done so much damage to Colombia and to innocent people."
Associated Press writer Libardo Cardona contributed to this report.