ARAUCA, Colombia — After 11 tense days in rebel captivity during which they were moved to five jungle camps and played gin rummy to pass the time, two freelance journalists kidnapped in violent northeastern Colombia while on assignment for the Los Angeles Times were freed Saturday.
Reporter Ruth Morris, 35, and photographer Scott Dalton, 34, were unexpectedly handed over to the Red Cross by the leftist National Liberation Army, or ELN, at a remote rebel camp in Arauca province.
They were driven to the airport in Saravena, about 75 miles west of here, and immediately flown on a Red Cross plane to Bogota, the capital.
"I feel spectacular," Morris said in an interview Saturday evening after returning to Bogota and being debriefed at the U.S. Embassy there.
"It's hard to talk about good treatment when you're kidnapped and held against your will," said the British native, who was raised in Los Angeles. "But aside from that, we had the best sort of treatment we could expect."
"It feels great to be released. It took a while, but it's good to be home," said Dalton, a native of Conroe, Texas, who has worked as a photographer in Latin America for seven years and who, like Morris, lives in Bogota.
The journalists, abducted at a roadblock between Saravena and Tame, had come to the area to report on rising violence and President Alvaro Uribe's stepped-up campaign against long-entrenched guerrilla forces here. They are believed to be the first foreign journalists kidnapped in Colombia's four-decade-long civil war.
Both journalists appeared to be in good condition as they waved to reporters who had assembled at the Saravena airport after being tipped to their release.
Their ordeal began Jan. 21. After Morris and Dalton were invited to interview a guerrilla commander, the rebels made it clear that the journalists had no choice but to come with them. Contrary to some reports, they were never hooded or tied up, Morris said.
For 11 days, the two were held by an assortment of rebels as young as 15. They tramped along mountain paths as they were moved to different encampments.
Morris said the ELN commanders told her that the kidnappings had been a "mistake" and that they had initially planned to release her and Dalton immediately.
The commanders changed their minds because of the ensuing media furor and a desire to ensure a safe release. Morris said she suspects that she and Dalton were kept for political leverage.
"We played gin rummy every night. Scott never would admit this, but I came out ahead of him," Morris said, adding that she also practiced yoga.
The guerrillas let Dalton keep his photographic and computer equipment, and even helped carry it.
Other than mosquito bites, Morris and Dalton emerged from captivity in relatively good health. "There is not a hungry mosquito left in the Arauca jungle," Morris said.
"One of the things that gave me the most anxiety was wondering how my parents and sister were taking the news," she said. "I just want them and our friends to know we are OK, fairly relaxed and very happy.
"They gave us fruits to eat and helped us carry our bags. It was clear they were given orders to treat us well."
The journalists were freed soon after Italian Red Cross member Lorenzo Karafi and a driver arrived at the ELN camp in a marked Red Cross vehicle Saturday morning.
The release was conducted in secret after a previous arrangement for a Friday hand-over to a humanitarian commission fell through.
The commission -- made up of a Roman Catholic priest and two government human rights officials -- backed out of the exchange after the government refused to guarantee the group's safety.
The guerrillas wanted to use the commission as a forum to rail against what they described as the government's indiscriminate bombings and killings in Arauca in recent months.
The government, which had been fighting a losing battle against guerrilla terrorism and corruption here but has recently scored offensive gains, accuses the insurgents of the same outrages.
In a hard-line speech in southern Colombia on Friday morning, Uribe said that the journalists should be released unconditionally and that the army would not call off its intense anti-rebel campaign in order to make the transfer safer.
To do so would be an affront to the hundreds of middle-class Colombians kidnapped each year and held for months without fanfare, and who receive no special consideration from the Colombian army, he said.
An ELN communique broadcast Saturday over its Voice of Liberation radio station after the journalists' release quoted Comandante Pablo as saying the two were released as a gesture of "respect to the press and the liberty of all human beings," adding that the release had nothing to do with the president's harsh words Friday.
The communique also promised to raise the level of fighting in Arauca in response to Uribe's recent offensive.