By Julia Symmes Cobb
BOGOTA (Reuters) - A Colombian general and two others taken captive by Marxist FARC rebels could be free by Saturday, President Juan Manuel Santos said, in a move that may lead to the restart of suspended peace negotiations to end 50 years of war.
Santos halted the two-year talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and said negotiations would not resume until the group released five hostages it took earlier this month. The rebels this week freed two soldiers.
The FARC said it turned over the coordinates of the pick-up location for the remaining three hostages, and Santos confirmed on Wednesday he had ordered an end to military operations in the area.
"I have ordered the suspension of operations on the Pacific coast. We have confidence that General Alzate and his companions will be returned on Saturday," he said on Twitter.
General Ruben Dario Alzate is the highest-ranking hostage ever taken by the FARC. The other two with him are Corporal Jorge Contreras and civilian lawyer Gloria Urrego.
The three were captured by a FARC patrol as they disembarked from a boat in a jungle region of the poverty-stricken and violent department of Choco, on the Pacific coast.
The two recently freed soldiers were taken in eastern Arauca province, along the border with Venezuela, after engaging the FARC in combat.
"The government now has the coordinates for the area in Choco where there must be a suspension of operations," the FARC said in a statement on Wednesday.
"This is an indispensable condition for us to approach 'point X' for the new liberation," the rebels said, adding that they want to avoid any risk to the hostages' lives.
War-weary Colombians have become accustomed to the FARC taking hostages over the last decade or more, but they are outraged that the rebels have seized what appears to be a bargaining chip for talks to prove they are still relevant after years of heavy military offensives.
Still, the national mood seems to be more one of annoyance at the delay in the process and eagerness for the two sides to get back to the negotiating table.
Speedy release of the captives would benefit both the rebels and Santos, who took a tough stance suspending the talks. Critics have claimed he has bowed to FARC demands and that the guerrillas are not serious about ending the conflict.
(Editing by Helen Murphy and Cynthia Osterman)