Fate of peace talks in FARC hands: Colombian president

Bogota (AFP) - The fate of Colombia's peace talks is in the hands of the FARC rebels, the president has warned, after halting negotiations designed to end Latin America's longest-running conflict.

The Marxist guerrillas are under increasing pressure at home and abroad to free a general whose kidnapping prompted President Juan Manuel Santos to stop the talks, throwing the most promising effort yet to end Colombia's 50-year-old conflict into fresh crisis.

The two-year-old negotiations were derailed Sunday when General Ruben Alzate disappeared in a remote region on the Pacific coast in what the government denounced as a kidnapping by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

After an emergency meeting with top army brass, Santos called off the talks -- which had been due to resume Monday in Cuba -- and sent his defense minister to the isolated department of Choco to lead the investigation into the disappearance.

"The FARC's commitment (to peace talks) is at stake here," Santos warned Monday. "How they decide to act now will determine whether we can continue moving forward toward the end of the conflict, and reconciliation."

The government said it had asked the Red Cross to mediate to help secure the general's release.

Alzate heads the army's Titan task force in Choco, a poor rural region used as a base by several rebel and criminal groups.

He was traveling by boat to review a civilian energy project when gunmen ambushed him in the village of Las Mercedes, according to the captain of the boat, who managed to escape.

The general was abducted along with Corporal Jorge Rodriguez and adviser Gloria Urrego, the captain told commanding officers back in Choco's capital Quibdo.

Santos called the incident "totally unacceptable," adding: "We have information that gives us certainty that it was the FARC."

The FARC did not immediately react to either the kidnapping accusation or the suspension of talks.

The Cuban foreign ministry said FARC negotiators would give a press conference Tuesday in Havana.

The rebel delegation in Havana told its followers on Twitter they should "remain attentive" but did not mention the kidnapping.

Analyst Ariel Avila in Bogota said it was "normal" for the FARC to take time to clarify what had happened.

"Let's hope they do not take a long time and start a political game that would harm the peace process severely," added Avila, of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation.

- Controversial talks -

The current talks are the fourth effort to negotiate an end to the conflict.

After they were suspended, the European Union urged the FARC to "free their hostages immediately and unconditionally so as to allow an early resumption of the negotiations."

The general's disappearance comes just days after Santos visited Brussels, where the EU threw its full support behind the talks.

Founded in 1964 in the aftermath of a peasant uprising, 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 has faced sharp criticism from the opposition for launching negotiations with the FARC, but won re-election in June in a vote widely seen as a referendum on the peace process.

He has also announced plans to enter talks with the second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN).

The negotiations, which will mark two years Wednesday, have so far reached deals on three broad issues: land reform, political participation for ex-rebels, and fighting the drug trade that has helped fuel the conflict.

Remaining items on the agenda are reparations for victims, disarmament, and the mechanism by which the final deal will be put into force.

But there has not been any ceasefire during the negotiations, which the president argues would strengthen the rebels' hand.

In 2012, the FARC pledged to no longer kidnap civilians for ransom. But the guerrillas reserved the right to take police and soldiers captive, considering them prisoners of war.

- FARC commanders 'lack control' -

Political scientist Jorge Restrepo said the general's disappearance showed "the difficulty of holding negotiations amid hostilities."

Restrepo, the head of the Conflict Analysis Resource Center in Bogota, said the incident showed FARC commanders "lack control" over their forces, telling AFP that rebel negotiators in Havana "now find themselves with their backs to the wall".

The disappearance also put pressure on President Santos, particularly from his mentor-turned-nemesis, predecessor Alvaro Uribe.

Uribe, now a senator who favors a military crackdown instead of talks, said the incident showed the government's "weakness."

"We can't let deals with terrorists put our democratic values at risk," he said in a statement, calling on the international community to urge the FARC to declare a unilateral ceasefire.

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