FARC rebels free captured Colombian general
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Colombia's leftist FARC guerrillas freed an army general Sunday in a concession to revive suspended peace talks, but the president still refused to budge on their calls for a ceasefire.
Two weeks after sending the peace process into crisis by capturing Brigadier General Ruben Alzate, their highest-ranking captive in 50 years of conflict, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia handed him and two other army captives over to the Red Cross in the jungle-covered department of Choco.
The move paves the way for the two sides to resume the two-year-old talks in the Cuban capital Havana, the most promising bid yet to end the five-decade guerrilla war.
But no sooner had Alzate been freed than the FARC and Santos were at loggerheads again over the issue of a ceasefire.
Santos has repeatedly refused to consider a bilateral ceasefire without a peace agreement, on grounds that the rebels would use it to regroup, lengthening the war.
In a statement from Havana, the FARC urged him to reconsider.
"The time has come for a bilateral ceasefire, or an armistice, so that no act of war in the fields of battle can be used to justify the interruption" of the peace process, they said.
They called to "redesign the rules of the game" as the peace talks take up the most sensitive issues, disarmament and reparations for victims.
But although Santos said he would meet with the government's negotiating team to discuss "the terms of their return to Havana," he appeared unwilling to yield on a ceasefire.
"I'm convinced that negotiating in the midst of the conflict has been the best way to preserve the essential elements of the state and prevent the talks from becoming an interminable exercise," he said in a statement.
He praised Alzate's release, however, saying it "contributes to recovering a favorable climate to continue the talks (and) demonstrates the maturity of the process."
Alzate, 55, heads a task force charged with fighting the rebels and drug traffickers who are rife in Choco, a remote western department that is the poorest in Colombia.
He was captured along with Corporal Jorge Rodriguez and army adviser Gloria Urrego on November 16 as they traveled by boat without a security detail to visit a civilian energy project.
The FARC defended their capture as a legitimate act of war taken in the absence of a ceasefire.
Cuba and Norway, which serve as guarantors of the peace talks, announced on November 19 that a deal had been reached for the FARC to release the three captives, plus two soldiers captured in combat on November 9, in order to get the talks back on track.
After the rebels released the two soldiers last Tuesday and the army halted operations in Choco, FARC commander Felix Antonio Munoz, alias Pastor Alape, flew in from Havana to oversee Alzate's release.
It took place on the banks of the Arquia River in the small village of Vegaez in northeastern Choco, on a day drenched by a tropical rainstorm.
Impact on talks
The speed with which the crisis was resolved showed that both sides were keen to avoid an escalation that could permanently damage negotiations, said Angelika Rettberg, an expert on the peace process.
"The peace process already was showing signs of inertia," she said.
The talks in Havana, the fourth attempt at a peace deal, have made halting progress since they began in November 2012, but a comprehensive peace agreement has remained elusive.
Getting them back on a sound footing may not be easy, some observers say.
"In the long run, this episode will be felt in Havana," said Christian Voelkel, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.
The FARC's leader, Timoleon Jimenez, who goes by the alias Timochenko, warned pointedly last week that the government's suspension had "destroyed trust," adding: "Things can't just resume as they were."
The Colombian conflict has claimed the lives of more than 220,000 people and uprooted 5.3 million more since the FARC was founded in the aftermath of a peasant uprising in 1964.