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

By Julia Symmes Cobb

Colombia’s FARC rebels freed two captured soldiers on Tuesday, the first step toward resuming 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, taking place in Havana, threatened to derail efforts to end five decades of war between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels, which has killed more than 200,000 people since it began in 1964.

President Juan Manuel Santos has said talks would not resume until all five hostages, including General Ruben Dario Alzate, a military official, a civilian lawyer and the two soldiers released on Tuesday, are freed.

The soldiers, Paulo Cesar Rivera and Jonathan Andres Diaz, were taken captive in the restive eastern department of Arauca during a military operation on Nov. 9.

They were freed Tuesday morning with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross, arriving at an airport in Tame, Arauca, in a helicopter emblazoned with the charity group’s insignia.

“We’re glad that these two people can shortly return to their homes, where their families await them,” Christoph Harnisch, the head of the ICRC’s Colombia delegation, said in a statement.

The FARC confirmed the liberation of the soldiers in a statement and said they would now focus their efforts on freeing the general and the two other hostages captured with him.

The rebels expect military operations in the area where Alzate and the others are being held “to be suspended immediately so the liberation of the mentioned people can go ahead without problems and without risks to anyone.”

Local TV showed the families and friends of the two soldiers celebrating the release. Relatives will be reunited with them in Bogota, local press reported.

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 in the violent Pacific department of Choco.

After a tense three-day stand-off, the FARC said they would release the captives. 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 only 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 rebels’ decision to free the captives may mollify critics of the process who say the FARC is not serious about ending the conflict.

But delays have sparked grumbles that the FARC is hoping to milk the releases for positive press coverage.

The rebels have reiterated their desire for a bilateral ceasefire while the talks proceed, something the government has consistently refused to consider, and have criticized Santos for suspending the negotiations.

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, say they have stopped holding people for ransom but insist that military personnel are fair game and, when captured, are prisoners of war.

Alzate is the highest-ranking military official ever kidnapped by the FARC.

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