By Helen Murphy
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's feared FARC rebel group said it would abandon its decades-long policy of economic kidnapping and free all military and police hostages it holds in jungle camps, another sign the drug-funded leftist insurgents may want a move toward peace.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the biggest and oldest armed group in Latin America, holds 10 members of the armed forces as well as hundreds of civilians it seized as a means of extortion to fund its battle against the government.
"Many speak of the practice of kidnapping people, men and women from the civilian population, for reasons of financing and sustaining our struggle. ... From now on we will abandon the practice from our revolutionary activity," the FARC said in a statement dated February 26 from the "Mountains of Colombia."
On his Twitter account, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos wrote, "We value the FARC announcement to stop kidnapping as an important step and necessary, but not sufficient, in the right direction."
The statement is the latest in a series of messages posted by the FARC's leadership that may indicate the half century old insurgent group wants some sort of peace negotiation. The rebels said that as well as the six uniformed captives they had already promised to free, they would liberate another four.
Santos, facing increased pressure to seek an end to the conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people over the decades, has refused any peace talks unless the group frees all captives, stops kidnapping and ceases all attacks on civilian and military targets.
Santos is responsible for some of the harshest blows against the FARC, including killing the group's leader Alfonso Cano last year. Its new leader, known by his alias as Timochenko, has made several statements since taking the helm of the Marxist group late last year.
U.S.-backed strikes against the FARC for more than a decade have severely weakened the rebels and limited their ability to launch attacks on the country's economic infrastructure, attracting billions of dollars in foreign investment.
Government troops also fight drug-funded crime bands, paramilitary groups and smaller leftist armed groups.
Even as the government's battle against the FARC has cut in half its fighting force to as few as 8,000, the rebel group remains a formidable part of the conflict, stripping as much as 1 percent from the economy each year.
The FARC was once considered almost invincible. None of its seven-member secretariat had been killed or captured in more than four decades, but five have been killed since 2008.
It was created in 1964 by Manuel Marulanda, a highway inspector who had fled into the mountains with a handful of peasant supporters to fight a bloody civil war known as La Violencia.
At its strongest, the FARC's 20,000 fighters controlled much of rural Colombia, promising social justice while it attacked towns, controlled the production of coca - used to make cocaine - and threatened local government officials.
Santos is seeking a constitutional change that may smooth the way for the FARC's secretariat to face shorter prison sentences if peace is reached and they confess their crimes and compensate their victims.
(Reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by Will Dunham)