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U.S. tourist who was missing in Peru sends greetings from military base

By Laila Kearney

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - One of two California tourists in Peru feared by family to have been kidnapped sent home her first online greeting in a month on Wednesday, saying she and her boyfriend were safe on a military base, playing with a monkey and being treated like celebrities.

The Facebook message was posted a day after the Peruvian government said Jamie Neal and her traveling companion, Garrett Hand, both 25, had surfaced on a riverboat in the Amazon, surprised to learn they were the subjects of an international search.

"Everyone is interviewing us and taking photos, saying that we are now famous in Peru," Neal wrote from a military installation at Pantoja, in northern Peru near the border with Ecuador, where she said she and Hand had been taken.

"The Peruvian military gave us our own house to stay in and food and a bunch of booze to drink," Neal said, adding, "This is ... insane." She also said Peruvian tourism officials planned to fly a plane to Pantoja on Thursday to meet "us and bring us gifts."

Hand later posted a separate greeting on his own Facebook page, saying simply, "I'm alive."

It was not clear why the couple were brought to a military base, and tourism officials in Lima, the Peruvian capital, were not immediately available for comment.

Neal apologized for worrying friends and family with her disappearance but said that she and Hand had been traveling through remote villages in the Amazon without electricity, telephones or Internet service.

MAKING FRIENDS WITH A MONKEY

The couple were still unable to make a phone call via Skype because of slow Internet connections at the base, she said, adding they would call home when it was possible.

Neal concluded her message saying she was "going to go play with the pet monkey we named Pepe ... he was just biting my toes."

The Oakland, California, couple embarked on an open-ended bicycle tour of South America in late November. Relatives said that after hearing from the couple regularly, all communication from the pair stopped on January 25, along with activity on their bank accounts.

Relatives and co-workers expressed fears that Hand and Neal might have been abducted.

At the time, the couple were traveling to Lima from Cusco, a mountainous region near the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu, where U.S. tourists were recently advised of kidnapping risks linked to a turf war between government forces and Maoist Shining Path rebels.

Peruvian officials launched a search for Neal and Hand shortly after they were reported missing and announced on Tuesday that the couple were found safe in Angoteros, Peru, on a boat up the Napo River headed for Ecuador.

Francine Fitzgerald, Hand's mother, said she would still fear for the couple's safety until she talked to them on the phone and saw a recent photo of them.

"We need to insist that an American citizen government official is witness to this supposed meeting that is going to occur sometime within the next day or two," the Hand family said in a statement early on Wednesday.

The Hand and Neal families did not respond to interview requests on Wednesday.

Peru's minister of tourism told CNN he was "deeply concerned" that the media attention caused by the missing couple would negatively affect his country.

(Editing by Steve Gorman, Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)

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