Colombia’s FARC rebels free captured general
Colombia’s leftist FARC guerrillas on Sunday freed an army general and two others, calling for an “armistice” to protect peace talks from future disruptions.
President Juan Manuel Santos, who suspended the peace talks after the capture of Brigadier General Ruben Alzate, was the first to announce the captives’ release.
“Freed … in perfect condition,” he said on his Twitter account, adding that they would be reunited with their families as soon as weather permitted.
Military operations had been halted for the handover in the dank, jungle-covered Choco region bordered by Panama.
Santos had made the release of the captives a condition for resuming the two-year-old talks, seen as the best chance yet of ending the country’s 50-year-old guerrilla war.
But in a statement from Havana following the prisoner release, the FARC urged Santos to agree to a bilateral ceasefire to protect the peace talks from similar disruptions in the future.
“The time has come for a bilateral ceasefire, or an armistice, so that no act of war in the fields of battle be used to justify the interruption” of the peace process, the FARC statement said.
Santos has repeatedly refused to consider a ceasefire without a peace agreement, on grounds that the rebels would use it to regroup, lengthening the war.
The FARC statement argued that as the peace talks take up the most sensitive issues it was time to “redesign the rules of the game.”
Alzate, Corporal Jorge Rodriguez and army adviser Gloria Urrego were captured by rebels November 16 as they traveled by boat without a security detail to visit a civilian energy project in the Choco department.
The 55-year-old general is the highest ranking officer ever captured by the FARC.
He heads an army task force fighting the rebels and drug traffickers in Choco, an impoverished region that has been hard hit by the conflict.
The FARC said Saturday preparations were in place to release the three to the International Committee of the Red Cross and representatives of Norway and Cuba, guarantors of the peace talks.
A Colombian news agency close to the FARC, Anncol, said rebel peace negotiator Pastor Alape and the commander of the unit that captured the general were involved in the handover.
In a show of good faith, the FARC on Tuesday freed two other soldiers who were captured in fighting November 9 in the department of Arauca.
The speed with which the crisis was resolved showed that both sides were keen to avoid an escalation that could do permanent damage to the peace talks, said Angelika Rettberg, an expert on the peace process.
“The peace process already was showing signs of inertia,” she said.
The talks in Havana 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.
“It will be difficult for the peace talks to resume as if nothing had happened,” said Christian Voelkel, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.
“In the long run, this episode will be felt in Havana,” he said.
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 conflict, the oldest in Latin America, has claimed the lives of more than 220,000 people and uprooted 5.3 million more.
The FARC has justified its capture of the army hostages as legitimate acts of war taken in the absence of a ceasefire.
Founded in 1964, the FARC has about 8,000 fighters and is the largest of two leftist guerrilla groups active in Colombia.