“Apart from the fact that I was held for a month, everything went very well. I cannot complain,” France 24 correspondent Romeo Langlois told reporters after arriving in the hamlet of San Isidro with a group of rebels.
He was later flown to the Colombian capital Bogota, and was expected to return to France as early as Thursday to be reunited with his family.
Langlois, 35, had been captured at the end of April by rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) during an attack on a Colombian army unit he was embedded with in order to film a counter-drug operation.
“They treated me like a guest,” Langlois, dressed in gray shirt and black pants, said of his captors. “They were always very respectful.”
The rebels handed over Langlois to a team from the International Committee of the Red Cross that also included French envoy Jean-Baptiste Chauvin and longtime peace activist Piedad Cordoba.
News of the release was met with widespread relief in France, where President Francois Hollande expressed his “great joy” and thanked Colombian authorities, the French ambassador to Bogota and the ICRC for “the happy end.”
Langlois said he would likely return to France on Thursday. “Seems I will travel tomorrow (Thursday). I will see if I can negotiate another day (in Bogota) but I think that will be difficult.”
Langlois’s parents, watching for signs of their son’s release in Paris, were overjoyed at the news of his freedom.
“We are very, very happy,” his mother Aline told France 24. His father, Michel, said the couple were worried their son had been killed or that his health was failing.
“We were optimistic because Romeo is a professional, he knows the FARC, he knows Colombia very well,” he added.
Despite his ordeal, Langlois, who has been reporting from Colombia for a decade, vowed to keep a close eye on the decades-long strife between the FARC and the military.
“I stay convinced that one has to keep following the conflict,” he said.
Eager to welcome Langlois, locals in San Isidro, a village of 300 people that has no running water or electricity, had slaughtered several cows for a celebratory barbecue.
During the lengthy celebration after his release, the rebels publicly apologized for holding Langlois as “prisoner of war.”
“I accept the apologies but I don’t agree with the decision to keep me for 33 days,” Langlois countered.
Villagers had also put up banners, one of which read: “We need the state to be there — not with its weapons and bombs, but with its investments.”
Local official Nelson Cardenas told AFP the kidnapping had helped refocus global attention on the ongoing strife.
“The detention of the journalist was good for us,” he said. “Not because he was deprived of freedom — that’s bad. But because it attracted the attention of domestic and foreign journalists.”
In the early hours of the morning, the ICRC delegation had left the southern town of Florencia in a convoy of three cars bearing the Red Cross symbol.
Six hours later, they arrived at the pre-arranged handover spot located at least 100 kilometres away, an AFP journalist with the delegation said.
At the request of the rebels, the Colombian army agreed to suspend all military operations in the area for 36 hours.
The rebels released a “proof of life” video of Langlois on Monday, showing speaking on camera and in apparent good health, despite having received a superficial bullet wound in the arm shortly before his capture.
Through mediation by Cordoba — a former Colombian senator — and the ICRC, the guerrillas have released dozens of hostages since 2008, most of them police officers or troops captured during clashes.
Hollande had appointed Chauvin as an envoy to help secure the release of Langlois as one of his first moves after assuming the presidency earlier this month.
The last French national held by the FARC was Ingrid Betancourt, a former Colombian senator and presidential candidate. She was abducted during her presidential campaign in February 2002, along with her assistant, Clara Rojas.
Betancourt and 14 other hostages — including three US military contractors — were freed in an operation by the Colombian military in July 2008.
Founded in 1964, the FARC is the oldest and largest leftist guerrilla group in the country, with some 9,200 fighters.
The FARC renounced the practice of kidnappings for ransom in February but has stepped up attacks on Colombian security forces over the past year in remote parts of the country.