By Helen Murphy
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's feared FARC rebel group said it would abandon its decades-long policy of kidnapping for ransom 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 six police officials and four members of the military 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 that it will stop kidnapping as an important and necessary step in the right direction, but it's not enough."
The FARC, considered a terrorist group by the United States and European Union, did not say what would happen to the scores of civilians it already holds for ransom in its prison camps.
The rebels' statement was 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 six uniformed captives they had promised to free back in December, they would liberate the remaining four.
"This is great news and if it happens it's really worth taking seriously and looking at how viable it would be to have (the FARC) incorporated into the democratic system," said Victor Ricardo, who took part in a failed attempt at peace that ended in 2002 under former President Andres Pastrana.
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.
The FARC has held dozens of politicians, police officers and soldiers as hostages, including French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt seized in 2002 and three Americans taken a year later.
They were rescued by the military in 2008, when Santos was defense minister.
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 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.
The group was created in 1964 by Manuel Marulanda, a highway inspector who had fled into the mountains years earlier with a handful of peasant supporters to fight a bloody civil war known as La Violencia.
The FARC has recently said it wants negotiations based on the talks under Pastrana that started in 1998. He gave the FARC a safe haven, known as Farclandia or "FARC Land," to promote peace. But the rebels took advantage of the military absence to train as many as 20,000 fighters, build more airstrips to fly drugs and create prison camps to hold hostages.
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.
(Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Will Dunham)