November 19, 2014 / 7:44 PM / in 4 years

Colombia FARC negotiators say fate of captured general in hands of leadership

HAVANA/BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian rebel peace negotiators in Havana cannot order the release of an army general captured by their comrades and will defer to the group’s top commander back home, a leader of the FARC negotiating team said on Wednesday.

A demonstrator takes part in a march in support of peace talks in Bogota November 19, 2014. REUTERS/John Vizcaino

The government has suspended Colombian peace talks being held in Cuba until General Ruben Dario Alzate - seized over the weekend as he left a boat in the coastal region of Choco - is freed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The standoff has plunged the talks, which marked their second anniversary on Wednesday, into crisis while Latin America’s longest-running war, which has killed more than 200,000 people during 50 years, drags on.

The rebel negotiating team said the decision to free Alzate and two other captives rests with the seven-member secretariat led by Rodrigo Londoño, known by his nom de guerre Timochenko.

“We are not the ones to give this order. The FARC secretariat, through its commander, will assume this matter,” negotiator Ivan Marquez told reporters.

Alzate is the highest-ranking military hostage ever taken by the FARC. A soldier and a lawyer were captured along with him.

Colombian media, citing unidentified sources, have reported efforts to free Alzate were ongoing and said he may be released in the coming days.

President Juan Manuel Santos, who abruptly halted talks until Alzate is freed, set a more conciliatory tone during a speech in central Tolima on Wednesday, expressing hope that negotiations would resume.

“We need to abandon our weapons, the violence and end this armed conflict,” Santos said in the town of Ataco. “That is why I hope this impasse that has appeared in the Havana negotiations will be resolved soon.”

A massive rescue operation in Choco’s dense jungle terrain has been under way since Sunday, though a military effort to release Alzate could endanger the hostages as it is unclear whether orders still stand for FARC fighters to kill captives if a rescue is attempted.

The army is offering a 100 million peso ($46,000) reward for information leading to the hostages’ rescue, military sources confirmed to Reuters on Wednesday.

Londoño has traveled secretly to Cuba several times in the past year to meet with his team of negotiators, according to Colombian officials.

Santos has staked his presidency on bringing peace to Colombia, winning re-election this year against a right-wing opponent who threatened to ditch the talks and finish the FARC on the battlefield.

Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb and Luis Jaime Acosta; editing by Daniel Trotta, G Crosse and Leslie Adler

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