BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia's largest rebel group has freed an army general and two others whose capture led President Juan Manuel Santos to suspend peace talks.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia handed over Gen. Ruben Alzate and his companions — an army corporal and military lawyer — to a humanitarian mission led by the International Red Cross early Sunday morning. The group was then shuttled by helicopter to a military base near Medellin, from where they'll head later on to Bogota.
Alzate was the highest-ranking military officer captured by the rebels in 50 years of fighting and the incident immediately plunged into crisis peace talks taking place in Cuba. Determined not to scuttle two years of slow but steady progress, the rebels dispatched from Havana one of their top commanders, a member of the ruling secretariat known by his alias Pastor Alape, to oversee the handover deep inside the jungles of western Colombia.
"I'm infinitely happy," Claudia Farfan, wife of the U.S.-trained counterinsurgent expert, told The Associated Press after receiving a phone call from the president informing her that her husband was safe and in good health. "I can smile again."
Santos had conditioned the resumption of peace talks on the safe return of the general's group as well as two rank-and-file soldiers taken during a firefight in a separate incident earlier this month.
Humberto de la Calle, the government's chief negotiator, said members of his negotiating team will travel Monday to Havana to initiate with the FARC a two-day evaluation of recent events. He said the government would also push for ways to speed up talks and de-escalate the conflict even before a deal is reached.
Now free, the 55-year-old counterinsurgent expert Alzate will have to answer tough questions about why he apparently violated military protocol and ventured upstream into the rebel-dominated Atrato River dressed as a civilian and without his normal security detail.
For its part, the rebel movement is calling for an immediate redesign of the two-year-old peace process, which it says is threatened by the government's refusal to accept a bilateral cease-fire. It considers military personnel prisoners of war and has expressed disbelief that Santos' government, rather than recognize the insurgents' goodwill offer to free the captives, has drawn closer to conservative critics who see it as being too lenient with the rebels.
"We can't let the peace process that has reached such an advanced state, where key issues are being discussed, be subject to such rushed, thoughtless actions," the rebels said in a statement from Havana. "Let's leave behind the incoherence of talking about reconciliation and victims' rights without putting out the gunfire or stopping the neoliberal policies responsible for generating misery."
Santos on Sunday showed no signs of taking the bait.
While recognizing that the general's release demonstrates the rebels are negotiating in earnest, he said he is convinced the best path forward is to maintain military pressure.
"Negotiating in the middle of a conflict has costs that are difficult to understand and accept," Santos said in a statement, adding that he'll meet with his peace delegation to discuss the terms of their return to the negotiating table. "But it's the best way to preserve the integrity of the state and avoid that conversations go on forever."
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