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Colombia’s FARC Rebels Vow to Halt Kidnappings, Free Hostages

Colombia’s largest rebel group promised to halt kidnappings for ransom and will release its remaining hostages, bringing it closer to negotiating a peace agreement after waging nearly five decades of war.

“We wish to express our feelings of admiration for the families of the soldiers and police in our power,” the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said in a statement yesterday. “They never lost faith.”

The group didn’t agree to end hostilities or stop taking soldiers captive, and the government’s decision to boost military spending will only prolong the conflict, the FARC said in the statement dated Feb. 26 from the “mountains of Colombia.” The rebels also called on the government to free “political prisoners” to facilitate an end to the war.

“They’re not capitulating and suing for peace yet, but this does make it sound like they’re thinking about an eventual negotiation,” Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, said in a telephone interview yesterday. “It’s a big step.”

Until recently, the FARC used to kidnap thousands of Colombians each year. A U.S.-back military offensive has dwindled the rebels’ ranks by more than half over the past decade, allowing the government to reclaim highways and rural areas that were previously off-limits.

The security improvements are fueling a boom in mining and oil investment. Colombia’s economy will grow 5.1 percent this year, and probably expanded around 6 percent in 2011, Finance Minister Juan Carlos Echeverry said this month. That’s more than the 3.6 percent growth rate forecast by the International Monetary Fund for the rest of Latin America this year.

Remaining Hostages

In addition to the six prisoners they pledged to release in December, some of whom had been held for up to 12 years, they said they’ll now release the final four remaining captives.

Formal dialogue with the government wouldn’t start at the earliest until 2014, when Colombia holds presidential elections, he said. The last peace talks between the two sides broke down in 2002.

“We appreciate the FARC’s announcement that it will renounce kidnapping as an important and needed step, but it’s not enough,” President Juan Manuel Santos said from his Twitter account yesterday.

The FARC, which is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union, was founded in 1964 as a rural, Marxist insurgency.

The group’s leader Alfonso Cano, whose real name was Guillermo Saenz, was killed last year during a firefight with government troops. Timoleon Jimenez, also known as Timochenko, replaced him in November.

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