Colombian government and FARC in deal to free general

Havana (AFP) - The Colombian government and the FARC struck a deal to free "as soon as possible" a general and several others the guerrillas are holding captive, suggesting the faltering peace process is back on track.

Some 1,500 troops, 10 helicopters and planes, as well as boats and land vehicles, have been scouring the region of Choco for General Ruben Alzate, the highest-ranking military officer to be kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in five decades of conflict.

Alzate, 55, went missing Sunday with Corporal Jorge Rodriguez and army adviser Gloria Urrego as they traveled by boat to visit a civilian energy project in Choco, where the general heads a task force responsible for fighting the rebels and where drug gangs are rife.

The kidnapping caused Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to suspend peace talks with the FARC -- the most promising effort yet to end Colombia's 50-year conflict.

But his government and the FARC appeared to have reached a deal Wednesday -- the two-year anniversary of the talks.

"The parties have agreed the conditions needed to set free" Alzate and four others, said Cuban diplomat Rodolfo Benitez and Norwegian counterpart Rita Sandberg, whose countries are among the guarantors of the talks in the Cuban capital Havana.

"The parties have agreed on the conditions for the release of the following persons: General Ruben Dario Alzate, soldier Jorge Rodriguez, soldier Cesar Rivera, soldier Jonathan Diaz and Gloria Urrego," Benitez said.

Santos, who has staked his presidency on the peace process, had earlier voiced optimism that the wider talks would be salvaged.

"No matter the obstacles or the enemies, we will achieve peace," he said at a ceremony to mark the two-year anniversary of the negotiations, as the crowd, dressed in white, waved paper cutouts of doves.

- 'Suspend the war' -

In the capital Bogota, about 200 people held a rally earlier in the day to show support for the peace talks and call for a ceasefire.

"Suspend the war, not the peace process!" they shouted.

Santos has so far rejected FARC demands for a ceasefire, saying it would strengthen the rebels' hand.

The FARC's second in command, Ivan Marquez, who heads the rebel delegation at the suspended talks, blamed the lack of a ceasefire for the crisis sparked by Alzate's capture.

"Someone who declares a merciless war can't turn around and ask us not to touch his soldiers and generals," he said.

The FARC fighters who claimed responsibility for capturing Alzate, the Ivan Rios unit, have said they will respect their commanders' orders on what to do with their hostages.

- Crisis 'can be overcome' -

"It's a deep crisis but not one that's intrinsic to the peace process. It can easily be overcome in a matter of days," political analyst Ariel Avila told AFP prior to news of the deal to free the general.

The FARC is the largest of the guerrilla groups active in Colombia, with about 8,000 fighters.

The conflict, which has at various times drawn in drug traffickers and right-wing paramilitaries, has killed more than 220,000 people and caused more than five million to flee their homes.

Santos, who won re-election in June in a vote widely seen as a referendum on the peace process, has also announced plans to enter talks with the second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN).