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How a US Army veteran fell into Colombian rebels’ hands

BOGOTA, Colombia — A former US Army private, who was kidnapped by Marxist guerrillas in June after he ignored warnings and went hiking through the Colombian jungle, was released Sunday.

In a statement, the International Committee of the Red Cross said Kevin Scott Sutay, who had been held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, since June 20, was turned over to representatives of the Red Cross and the governments of Colombia, Cuba and Norway in southern Guaviare department.

A Red Cross doctor said Sutay, who is in his 20s, was in good health and fit for travel back to the United States. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that the US was “profoundly grateful” to the Colombian government for its “tireless efforts” to secure Sutay’s release.

Sutay, of Willow Spring, North Carolina, served in the US Army from November 2009 to March 2013, which included a one-year tour of duty to Afghanistan, CNN reported, citing the Pentagon.

Following travels through Mexico and Central America, Sutay arrived in Colombia in June. He had planned to walk through the jungle to the Venezuelan border, according to Carlos Villalon, a Chilean photographer who met him in the southern town of San Jose del Guaviare.

Sutay had been warned by the police not to attempt the hike due to the heavy presence in the area of the FARC, the largest rebel group in Colombia’s half-century civil war.

Thousands of US citizens safely visit Colombia each year, whether for tourism, university studies or volunteer work, the State Department says. But, earlier this month, it warned that “violence linked to narco-trafficking continues to affect some rural areas and parts of large cities.”

More from GlobalPost: Colombia’s FARC and recreation

Villalon told GlobalPost he also tried to convince Sutay to call off his plans.

“I told him: ‘Look man, what you’re trying to do is crazy,’” Villalon said. “The jungle is so dangerous. He could have stepped on a land mine and bled to death or been bitten by a snake. He could have gotten lost. I told him that the best thing that could happen would be for the FARC to find him.”

Sutay insisted on pressing ahead with his plans so Villalon recommended that he at least buy some decent jungle gear, such as a machete, ankle-high rubber boots and a mosquito net. He also recommended that Sutay get rid of his old military ID cards since they would surely alarm the guerrillas.

The next day, Villalon saw Sutay walking along the road toward the town of El Retorno (The Return), where the guerrillas kidnapped him the next day.

“The rebels got him five minutes from El Retorno,” Villalon said. “He never even saw the jungle.”

Since taking up arms in the 1960s, the FARC has kidnapped thousands of civilians for ransom but had vowed in 2009 to stop the criminal practice.

However, the guerrillas, who have been weakened in recent years by a US-backed Colombian military offensive, claimed that Sutay was an American spy.

“What would you think of a man who is in a war zone, who has a secret camera in his watch, who is carrying [global] positioning equipment … who has a military uniform in his suitcase?” Rodrigo Granda, a high-ranking FARC member, said, according to The Associated Press.

US officials strongly denied Sutay was an American agent and demanded his release.

Eventually, the FARC came to the conclusion Sutay was a harmless but disoriented war veteran. Last month, the FARC’s website posted what it claimed was an interview with Sutay. GlobalPost could not verify its veracity.

“Before I go I have to see a tiger,” Sutay was quoted as saying.

The FARC and the Colombian government have been carrying out peace talks in Cuba and the rebels may have decided to release Sutay as a “goodwill” gesture. Still, the handover was delayed.

The FARC wanted the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has a long history of serving as an intermediary in US hostage cases, to receive Sutay. But President Juan Manuel Santosrefused, saying he did not want to turn his release into a media circus and a propaganda coup for the FARC.

Ironically, Sutay was freed in the rural area of Tomachipan, which was also the site of what some have called Colombia’s “Argo.” In 2008, Colombian commandos disguised as aid workers visited a FARC camp near Tomachipan, convinced the rebels to put 15 hostages, including three US military contractors, aboard a helicopter, and then flew them to freedom.

The US contractors had been held in the jungle for five years, so in that sense Sutay was lucky: He was released after just four months.

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