Farc to free Colombian general, others

Bogota – Farc guerrillas who captured a Colombian general and four others will release them next week, president Juan Manuel Santos said on Saturday, paving the way for a return to peace talks.

“I am giving instructions to facilitate their liberation next week,” Santos said in a Twitter message, noting that the Marxist guerrillas had already provided coordinates of where the captives would be delivered.

The 16 November kidnapping of General Ruben Alzate in the remote, jungle-covered Choco region threw peace talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and the government into disarray, with Santos suspending the two-year negotiations.

The two sides have been negotiating in Cuba for an end to the 50-year conflict that has claimed more than 220 000 lives and caused more than five million to flee their homes.

Alzate was kidnapped along with a corporal and an adviser. The Farc is also holding two soldiers who were kidnapped November 9 near the Venezuela border in Arauca province.

The Red Cross, which the government has asked to assist in the handover, said on Thursday it had a “green light” to begin the transfer.

But the operation appeared to stall on Friday and there was no immediate sign that military activity had been halted in either of the regions where the hostages were captured, a precondition for the handover.

Founded in 1964, the Farc is the largest of the guerrilla groups active in Colombia, with about 8 000 fighters.

In a sign the conflict is far from over, a police officer was killed and four others wounded on Saturday in an attack authorities blamed on the Farc.

Suspected Farc fighters carried out a dawn offensive on the island of Gorgona off the Pacific coast, Cauca province police chief Ramiro Perez Manzano said.

Three other police officers went missing during the fighting.

Questions over kidnapping

General Alzate, the head of an army task force charged with fighting rebels and drug traffickers in the Choco region, is the highest-ranking officer to be captured by the Farc in five decades of conflict.

He was taken hostage along with Corporal Jorge Rodriguez and army adviser Gloria Urrego as they traveled by boat to visit a civilian energy project in the remote western region.

Farc fighters were already holding two other soldiers captured in combat in the eastern department of Arauca, Paulo Cesar Rivera and Jonathan Diaz.

Diplomats from Cuba and Norway, two of the countries acting as guarantors of the peace process, announced Wednesday that a deal had been struck to free all five hostages, but gave few details.

The defense ministry says Alzate, 55, was ambushed by armed guerrillas on arrival in the village of Las Mercedes.

But questions have emerged about why he was apparently traveling in civilian clothing and without a security escort.

Local residents denied Thursday that he had been ambushed, casting further uncertainty on the incident.

Choco has been one of the regions hardest hit by the conflict and numerous rebel groups, drug gangs and illegal mining operations flourish in the hard-to-reach, densely forested department, whose population is overwhelmingly poor and black.

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