BOGOTA, COLOMBIA, JAN. 31 -- The sword of South America's revered liberator Simon Bolivar, stolen 17 years ago in a daring raid by M-19 rebels, was returned to its home today in an emotional ceremony led by the same group that took it.

"It has crossed mountains, been hidden in the homes of patriots and crossed borders," M-19 leader Antonio Navarro Wolf said of the sword. "Today it returns to the hands of the Colombian people."

The sword was presented to a group of children, whom Navarro described as "the torchbearers of Bolivar's spirit," and later placed in a special case in Bolivar's home, now a museum. President Cesar Gaviria and his family also attended the ceremony, held under perfectly sunny skies in the mansion's well-tended garden. But one big mystery remains -- how did the M-19 regain possession of the sword after losing it for several years?

The saga began Jan. 17, 1974, when, in a spectacular raid announcing their appearance as a new guerrilla army, M-19 rebels stole Bolivar's sword and spurs from the museum in his home. Bolivar, who freed much of South America from Spanish rule, died in Colombia in 1830.

The M-19, under heavy public pressure after becoming a legal political party 10 months ago, promised to return the sword by Dec. 18, 1990, the 160th anniversary of Bolivar's death. It found itself at the center of a political storm when it was unable to keep its pledge. Finally, the group was forced to admit it was no longer in possession of the national treasures.

"We know how to get to the sword, but we do not know where it is," said Navarro at the time. "We know what doors to knock on, and we are following all the steps, one at a time, needed to recover the valuable object."

Leaders of the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties in Congress repeatedly demanded that the sword be returned, and the capital was rife with theories on who had it. The mystery grew when, in December, the M-19 began taking out cryptic newspaper ads asking for leads on the relics.

The irony was not lost on Colombians, who remember how the M-19 presaged its appearance in a series of bizarre ads. "Parasites? Worms? Just wait ... the M-19," one of the original advertisements read.

"It seemed that soon a new laxative or insecticide would appear on the market, but we received something quite different," said El Tiempo, the nation's largest newspaper, in a December essay on the missing sword. "A guerrilla commando unit raided Bolivar's home and {M-19 leader} Alvaro Fayad walked out with Bolivar's sword hidden under his poncho."

Carlos Pizarro, the commander of the M-19 who signed the peace agreement with the government in March 1990, said at the time that only he and two other people, whom he did not identify, knew the whereabouts of the sword. Pizarro was assassinated April 26, and no one else stepped forward claiming direct knowledge of the hiding place.

Although the sword was returned, the spurs were not, and no mention was made of them during today's ceremony.

Some sources in the M-19, which at one time enjoyed a close relationship with Cuba, said the sword had been given to Fidel Castro for safekeeping and that he had refused to return it until now.

Others say the sword was put in the custody of a secret group of fewer than a dozen men called the Guardians of the Sword, and that the M-19 lost contact with the group, thus explaining the newspaper ads and delays. Still others say the real story of the sword will never be known because most of those who know it are now dead.

"For years the sword was a secret of the M-19, part of its mystique," Navarro said. "The sword has now been made public, but the other part of the mystery will remain hidden forever."