BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's Marxist FARC rebels freed an army general and two other captives on Sunday, paving the way for peace talks in Cuba to resume in the quest to end five decades of conflict.
President Juan Manuel Santos halted negotiations in Havana two weeks ago after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) seized five hostages, including General Ruben Dario Alzate, disrupting the push to end violence that has killed more than 200,000 people.
Santos refused to allow the talks, which had advanced more than previous attempts, to continue until the hostages were freed. Alzate, Corporal Jorge Contreras and civilian lawyer Gloria Urrego were released in a jungle area near where they were seized in the Pacific province of Choco.
The rebels freed two other soldiers captured a week before the general on Tuesday, meaning all five hostages have now been released. The Red Cross said those released on Sunday were fit to be flown by helicopter to the city of Medellin.
"It's clear this decision contributes to returning to a favorable climate for continuing the talks (and) shows the maturity of the process," President Santos said in a statement.
Santos said he would now meet his team of negotiators to discuss their return to the two-year-old peace talks in Cuba.
In a statement posted online on Sunday confirming the hostages' release, the FARC negotiating team in Havana reiterated its demand for a ceasefire during peace talks, a request Santos has repeatedly said is out of the question.
"It's time for a bilateral ceasefire, for armistice, so that no bellicose happening in the battlefield justifies interrupting such a beautiful and historic process like that of agreeing peace for a nation which longs for this destiny," the statement said.
It referred to the need "to redesign the rules of the game" without clarifying what that meant. A statement last week from FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, known by nom de guerre "Timochenko", said Santos had violated a general agreement stating that the talks must not be interrupted.
"A peace process which has gotten to this level ... cannot be submitted to any type of hurried and impulsive attitudes which will stall the coming of our reconciliation," the FARC negotiators said.
The FARC said a member of its negotiating team, 'Pastor Alape' or Felix Antonio Munoz Lascarro, had traveled to Colombia to ensure the hostages' release went smoothly.
Alzate, 55, and his fellow captives were seized as they disembarked from a boat in a jungle region of poor and violent coastal Choco. The FARC declared him a prisoner of war.
The two soldiers freed on Tuesday, Paulo Cesar Rivera and Jonathan Andres Diaz, were taken during combat in a separate incident in the eastern province of Arauca three weeks ago.[ID:nL2N0TF152]
The government and the FARC have reached partial agreement on ending the illegal drugs trade, land reform and political participation for demobilized rebels.
The speedy release of all captives benefits the rebels and Santos, who took a tough stance suspending the talks, and may for now silence critics who claim he has bowed to rebel demands and that the FARC is not serious about ending the conflict.
Powerful and still-popular former President Alvaro Uribe, now a senator, and his opposition party have slammed the talks, claiming the rebels are seeking impunity and have milked the hostage-taking for press coverage.
The last peace effort ended in a shambles in 2002 when the rebels used a demilitarized zone to expand their fighting force and take hostages.
The process finally collapsed when the FARC kidnapped a senator. The group held him captive for six years.
Additional reporting by Peter Murphy; Editing by Helen Murphy, Raissa Kasolowsky and David Clarke