Colombia Rebels Free Hostages, Ending Peace Talks Crisis

Marxist rebels in Colombia released an army general and two other hostages, ending a crisis that led President Juan Manuel Santos to suspend peace talks.

Members of Colombia’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, freed General Ruben Alzate, Corporal Jorge Rodriguez and lawyer Gloria Urrego, the government said today in a statement on the presidency’s website. The hostages’ release should allow negotiations with the group to restart, the government said.

“This decision contributes to the recovery of the climate for continuing dialogues,” the government said in the statement.

The peace talks, held in Havana since late 2012, aim to end a five-decade conflict in the Andean nation that has left more than 200,000 dead. Santos suspended negotiations after guerrillas captured Alzate and the others on Nov. 16, and said a return to talks depended on their release.

The negotiations have so far produced a partial agreement on agricultural reforms, political participation and tackling the illegal drug trade, with no deal yet on the rights of victims and arms decommissioning. “We have reached agreement on three of the points and will continue working to reach agreement on the remaining two,” the government said in the statement.

On Nov. 25, the FARC freed two other soldiers who were captured near the Venezuelan border earlier this month.

Alzate was seized in Las Mercedes, a village of about 40 wooden homes in the heavily forested region near Colombia’s Pacific coast. Now that he’s free, the general will probably face questions about why he was traveling in a conflict zone in civilian clothes without a large escort, which Santos called a breach of security protocol.

Cease-Fire Call

In a Twitter post today, the FARC reiterated its call for a bilateral cease-fire. Santos has repeatedly refused this demand, saying it would allow the guerrillas to regroup and would give them an incentive to string the talks out for a long period.

The government plans to continue military operations against the group to “avoid the talks being converted into an interminable exercise,” it said in the statement.

Sabotage attacks on oil pipelines have surged in recent years as the FARC tries to damage Colombia’s biggest export industry and tie down army units defending infrastructure.

Terrorist attacks on infrastructure rose to 400 last year from 116 in 2010, according to the Defense Ministry, while acts of extortion more than tripled over the same period.

Security for the people of Choco has deteriorated as a surge in illegal gold and platinum mining enriches the guerrillas and other illegal armed groups, said the Bishop of Quibdo, Juan Carlos Barreto.

“I don’t see any reduction in their activity,” Barreto said in an interview Nov. 20 in his office. “Financing from extortion, illegal mining and drugs has made them stronger.”

(A previous version of this story was corrected to fix the size of increase in acts of extortion.)

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