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BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian Marxist rebels released two captives on Tuesday and vowed to free a kidnapped army general by the weekend in a move that may lead to the resumption of suspended peace talks which aim to end five decades of war.
President Juan Manuel Santos halted two-year-old negotiations in Havana after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) seized five hostages, threatening to derail efforts to end a war that has killed more than 200,000 people since 1964.
Santos, who has staked his legacy on a successful peace deal, has said talks would not restart until all the hostages, including General Ruben Dario Alzate, the highest-ranking military official ever taken by the FARC, are freed.
The two liberated on Tuesday were soldiers taken in eastern Arauca province during combat with the FARC two weeks ago.
Dressed in camouflage fatigues and escorted from a helicopter by other military officials, Paulo Cesar Rivera and Jonathan Andres Diaz were freed with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
They were to be reunited with their families in Bogota.
The FARC said in a statement it would now focus efforts on freeing the general and the two other hostages captured with him in a separate incident a week later.
The 55-year-old Alzate, a military official and a civilian lawyer were captured as they disembarked from a boat in a jungle region of the poor and violent Pacific department of Choco.
"If all goes well, I think this weekend we will be able to say the general has returned home," Pablo Catatumbo, a member of the FARC's seven-member secretariat, told journalists in Havana.The rebels called for military operations in the area to be suspended immediately so the liberation could go ahead "without problems and without risks to anyone."
Santos, meeting regional leaders in the southern jungles of Putumayo, hailed the latest developments as good for peace.
"This is an important step which shows the maturity of the peace process and the gestures of peace all Colombians demand," he said after Tuesday's releases and the promises of more.
Speedy release of the remaining captives would benefit both the rebels and Santos, who took a tough stance suspending the talks, belying critics who claim he has bowed to rebel demands and that the FARC is not serious about ending the conflict.
Any delays, though, could add fuel to grumbles that the rebels are drawing out talks and milking the releases for press coverage, souring weary Colombians on the negotiations.
The talks aimed at ending Latin America's longest-running war were interrupted once before, when the FARC withdrew briefly to discuss the government's plan to put any final peace deal to a national referendum.
The drug-funded group has reiterated its desire for a bilateral ceasefire while the talks proceed, something the government has refused. The last peace effort ended in shambles in 2002 when the rebels used a demilitarized zone to expand their fighting force and take captives.
The process finally collapsed when the FARC kidnapped a senator and held him captive for six years.
Santos "destroyed confidence" by halting the negotiations, FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, known by his nom de guerre Timochenko, said in an open letter on Monday.
The FARC, once prolific kidnappers, says it has stopped holding people for ransom but insists military personnel are fair game and, when captured, are prisoners of war.
Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Peter Murphy, Helen Murphy and James Dalgleish