Colombia's largest rebel group left open the possibility of releasing a captured army general so as not to derail peace talks but insisted that only a bilateral cease-fire, something the government has long rejected, can prevent similar setbacks from re-occurring.
Peace negotiators for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia broke their silence Tuesday and confirmed that it is holding Gen. Ruben Dario Alzate and two others who were snatched while traveling on a remote river in western Colombia over the weekend.
In a statement read on behalf of the FARC's Ivan Rios block, rebel peace negotiators in Cuba referred to Alzate as a Pentagon-trained counterinsurgent officer with "huge outstanding debts" to Colombia's popular justice. Nonetheless, guerrilla commander Jorge Torres said he hopes a "quick and sensible" solution is found so peace talks put on hold by President Juan Manuel Santos can resume.
"What needs to be suspended is the war, not the peace process," Torres, a member of the FARC's ruling secretariat better known by his alias Pablo Catatumbo, told journalists in Havana.
The general's capture, the first of its kind in 50 years of fighting, has plunged the two-year-old peace talks into an unprecedented crisis.
Even before Santos suspended talks, frustration with the slow progress and the guerrillas' refusal to wind down attacks had been building, especially among his conservative opponents and members of the military.
Earlier this month, the FARC captured two soldiers during intense fighting in northeast Colombia and killed two Indians who confronted rebels hanging up revolutionary banners on their reservation. It has since offered to free the soldiers.
"The FARC have to understand that, although we're negotiating in the middle of the conflict, peace doesn't come by resorting to violence and undermining confidence," Santos said in a televised address Monday night. He said he won't return to the negotiating table until Alzate and the two others — an army captain and a female lawyer advising the army on a rural energy project — are freed.
Amid the heated rhetoric on both sides, little is known about why one of Colombia's most-distinguished officers violated military protocol and went to the Atrato River in the conflict zone dressed as a civilian and without bodyguards.
A 3,000-person search operation has so far yielded few leads and residents of the hamlet of wooden homes on stilts where the group was taken told local media they didn't know about the visit, and didn't witness any violence.
The FARC on Tuesday acknowledged that the general's capture was accidental, the result of a routine security patrol in an area they dominate. It said it would guarantee the life and safety of those its controls to the degree it can amid a constant military onslaught.
The FARC considers captured military personnel prisoners of war even though it freed all soldiers in its control and swore off the kidnapping of civilians on the eve of talks in 2012.
It also has been clamoring for a cease-fire while peace talks continue, something Santos has rejected for fears it would allow the guerrillas to regroup like they did in the last attempt at peace that ended in 2002.
The FARC front that took Alzate is among the group's most entrenched fighting units, based in the dense, water-logged jungles around Quibdo. Its members repeatedly violated unilateral cease-fires declared by the FARC leadership in Havana during elections and Christmas holidays.
Securing the general's release could be difficult: after a decade of heavy losses inflicted by the U.S.-backed military, the FARC leadership's operational command over its estimated 8,000 troops has been greatly reduced and just getting messages to the front lines could take several days.
Alzate, 55, is among Colombia's most-decorated soldiers. A graduate of the U.S. Army War College and Command and General Staff College in Kansas, he previously oversaw the military's anti-kidnapping unit. In January, Santos named him commander of the newly established Titan Task Force, a 2,500-man counterinsurgency force operating from Quibdo.
Goodman contributed to this report from Bogota, Colombia.
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