By Helen Murphy and Brian Ellsworth
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's FARC rebels on Monday freed 10 members of the armed forces held hostage in jungle prison camps for more than a decade, the last of a group of captives the drug-funded group has held as bargaining chips to pressure the government.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia released four soldiers and six police officials to a humanitarian mission led by the International Red Cross.
"This operation in a single day allowed ten families to be reunited after being apart for so many years," said Jordi Raich, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation.
"Today the agony of these families ends, and that gives us great satisfaction."
The release could signal a tentative step toward peace negotiations to end Latin America's oldest insurgency after five decades of killing civilians and destroying infrastructure.
But many Colombians remain skeptical that the guerrilla group, which is still believed to be holding some 700 civilian hostages, will lay down its weapons after having taken advantage of previous peace talks to strengthen their forces.
The freed captives were picked up in a helicopter supplied by Brazil and flown from a remote area that straddles the southern provinces of Meta and Guaviare, according to the Red Cross. They will be flown to the city of Villavicencio, in central Meta province, before heading to Bogota.
They were seized at the end of the 1990s when the FARC was at its strongest and formed part of a group known as "canjeables," or exchangeables, used to pressure the government for political concessions rather than for ransom payments.
Their release followed a series of messages from the FARC's leadership, including a promise in February to stop kidnapping for ransom, that may indicate it wants some sort of peace talks.
"This is a gesture that shouldn't be underestimated," said local conflict analyst Juan Carlos Palou.
"The promise that they will no longer kidnap for ransom implies to me that the government really should take it as a sign that the FARC really is interested in talks and move ahead with a process to end the conflict," said Palou.
President Juan Manuel Santos, who is under pressure to end a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people, has demanded that the FARC free all its prisoners and cease attacks on civilian and military targets before any talks could take place.
Some analysts have called the FARC's promise to halt kidnappings for ransom as a ploy to garner international support and shed their image as terrorists while raising funds for war through other means such as extortion.
(Reporting by Bogota newsroom; editing by Christopher Wilson)