Colombia's FARC free two soldiers in step to restart peace talks

Mediators of the dialogue between Colombia's government and Colombia's FARC, Rita Sandberg of Norway and Rodolfo Benitez of Cuba attend a declaration in Havana November 19, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

By Julia Symmes Cobb BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's FARC rebels freed two captured soldiers on Tuesday, the first step toward resuming stalled peace talks which the government suspended after the insurgent group took five hostages, including an army general. The halt in the two-year-old negotiations in Havana threatened to derail efforts to end five decades of war between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which has killed more than 200,000 people since 1964. President Juan Manuel Santos, who has staked his legacy on a successful peace deal, has said talks would not restart until all the hostages are free, including General Ruben Dario Alzate, the highest-ranking military official ever taken by the FARC. The soldiers, Paulo Cesar Rivera and Jonathan Andres Diaz, who were taken captive in the restive eastern department of Arauca during a military operation on Nov. 9, were freed with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross. "We're glad that these two people can shortly return to their homes, where their families await them," Christoph Harnisch, head of the ICRC's Colombia delegation, said in a statement. The FARC confirmed the liberation of the soldiers in a statement and said it would now focus its efforts on freeing the general and the two other hostages captured with him. The 55-year-old Alzate, a military official and a civilian lawyer were captured as they disembarked from a boat in a jungle region of the poor and violent Pacific department of Choco. The rebels called for military operations in the area "to be suspended immediately so the liberation of the mentioned people can go ahead without problems and without risks to anyone." Santos had urged the rebels to release the soldiers but did not suspend talks until a week later, after the kidnapping of Alzate and the two others. FARC leadership in Havana initially would not confirm the capture of Alzate but after a tense three-day stand-off it promised to free the hostages. PAST TALKS COLLAPSED "The only ones responsible for kidnapping are those who, in an act which completely violates human rights, commit the crime," the defense ministry said in a statement. "In this case it's the FARC which must answer to the country for its actions against liberty and the lives of citizens." Speedy release of the captives would benefit both the rebels and the government, which took a tough stance suspending the talks, belying critics who claim Santos is bowing to rebel demands and that the FARC is not serious about ending the conflict. Further delays could add fuel to grumbles that the rebels are drawing out talks and milking the releases for press coverage, souring weary Colombians on the negotiations. The government's team will not return to the negotiating table until all hostages are safely back with their families, Santos said. The talks aimed at ending Latin America's longest-running war were interrupted once before, when the FARC withdrew briefly to reflect on the government's plan to put any resulting peace deal to a nationwide referendum. The drug-funded group has reiterated its desire for a bilateral ceasefire while the talks proceed, something the government has refused to consider. The last peace effort ended in shambles in 2002 when the rebels used a demilitarized zone to expand their fighting force and take captives. The process collapsed when the FARC kidnapped a senator from a commercial airplane and held him captive for six years. Santos "destroyed confidence" by halting the negotiations unilaterally, FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, known by his nom de guerre Timochenko, said in an open letter on Monday. The FARC, once prolific kidnappers, says it has stopped holding people for ransom but insist that military personnel are fair game and, when captured, are prisoners of war. (Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Peter Murphy, Helen Murphy and James Dalgleish)