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Colombia's FARC frees ex-U.S. marine after four months in jungle

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's FARC guerrillas have freed a former U.S. marine who was kidnapped in June while he trekked through the jungle in a known guerrilla area, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the U.S. government said on Sunday.

Kevin Scott Sutay, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, had been backpacking through several Central and South American countries before he was captured by the FARC. He had ignored police warnings against hiking through a "red zone" for rebel activity in the southeastern province of Guaviare.

"We are pleased about the liberation today of U.S. citizen Kevin Scott Sutay who was in the hands of the FARC," said a statement from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in which he expressed profound gratitude to the Colombian government and President Juan Manuel Santos for their efforts.

Sutay was handed over in Guaviare to a delegation of the governments of Colombia, Cuba and Norway and members of the International Committee of the Red Cross before being delivered to U.S. embassy officials at the airport in the capital Bogota.

An ICRC doctor had deemed Sutay to be in good health and fit to travel, said ICRC spokeswoman Patricia Rey. An official of the U.S. embassy in Bogota said it was working to send Sutay home but could not confirm when he would leave.

Sutay's release may help peace negotiations the FARC has been engaged in with the government for the past year in Cuba. Progress in the talks has been slow with just partial agreement on one of the five points on the agenda.

The FARC had shown willingness to release Sutay in July but hardened its stance, accusing him of being a mercenary, soon after President Juan Manuel Santos refused to allow a high profile left-wing politician to oversee the liberation.

U.S. civil rights campaigner, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, then became involved in September, meeting with the FARC's negotiators in Cuba and asking them to release Sutay. However Santos refused FARC's demand that Jackson be allowed to head a delegation to oversee the release.

It was not immediately clear what had prompted the FARC to release Sutay on Sunday.

The FARC and their smaller counterpart, the ELN, have been fighting the government in a bloody five-decade conflict that has killed more than 200,000. Both are listed as terrorist organizations by the United States and European Union.

The FARC is believed to have around 8,000 fighters according to government data and the ELN around 3,000. Their numbers were roughly halved by a decade-long military offensive with the support of the U.S. government.

(Reporting by Nelson Bocanegra, Luis Jaime Acosta and Peter Murphy; Writing by Peter Murphy; Editing by Christopher Wilson and David Brunnstrom)

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