Two American activists held for six weeks in rat-infested Laotian jails were back home Saturday, declaring their mission proved POWs are still being held in Southeast Asia.

When Donna Long and James Copp arrived in Charlotte Friday night on the last leg of their journey home he was clutching a copy of William Safire's book "Freedom," and she triumphantly held a bottle of champagne.Long, 45, a Jacksonville free-lance writer, said in a telephone interview from her home Saturday that the pair suffered mental and physical abuse at the hands of Laotian authorities.

"We were abused," she said. "It was mental and it was physical in that we were not fed enough, and that wears you down. We were not beaten, but we were certainly abused."

Long and Copp, 44, an elementary school teacher in Hampstead, N.C., said nine days after they were captured in a Laotian village along the Mekong River they were flown to Vientiane, the capital, where each was held in solitary confinement for 32 days. Their only human contact was with interrogators.

"We thought they were going to kill us," said Copp, who lost 25 pounds during the ordeal. "They took us off the plane, blindfolded us, they marched us through the center of the city and then they took us in a room and left us with two men who had machine guns at our heads."

Long said she also was certain they were about to die.

"I reached out and took Mr. Copp's hand, and we just held hands because we knew we were going to die."

Long said the two were held in dirty, rat-infested cells and given little to eat except "maybe an egg a day and two little patties of rice. One day we had only an egg to split between the two of us."

During the Vietnam War, 547 GIs were lost in Laos. Many were reported alive after their planes went down, but both the U.S. government and Laotian officials deny prisoners of war are still being held.

When the Vietnam peace treaty was negotiated by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Vietnamese officials, there were no representatives of the Pathet Lao at the table and no provisions for the return of POWs held by that country.

But Long and Copp said their interrogators referred to the POWs as "war criminals" and that apparently is why the United States has been unable to secure the release of the missing men.

"They said to me, `Why are you trying to help war criminals? Why are you trying to get them out?"' Long said.

"I said, `This is a humanitarian mission,' and they said, `No, they are criminals.' " she said. "That told us the men are still there."