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Colombian rebels to free police and soldier

Saturday - 2/2/2013, 8:51pm  ET

By CAMILO HERNANDEZ
Associated Press

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) - Colombia's main leftist rebel group said Saturday it plans to free two police officers and a soldier it recently took prisoner. Their capture amid a surge in violence had cast a pall over peace talks to end a half-century-old conflict.

The police officers were seized Jan. 25 while on an intelligence mission in the southwestern state of Cauca, and the soldier was captured this past week in the adjacent southern region of Narino in the same place four soldiers were killed in combat.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, announced on its website Saturday that it would free all three prisoners together. It did not set a date.

The International Red Cross said it had received a FARC request to intermediate.

As a condition for initiating secret talks that led to negotiations now going on in Cuba, the FARC announced a year ago that it would no longer use kidnapping as a funding source. But on Tuesday, it insisted in a communique that it had every right to take security force members prisoners in combat. Analysts differed on whether the Cuba talks might be in jeopardy.

The rebels declared a two-month unilateral cease-fire when formal peace talks began, but it lapsed on Jan. 20. The FARC had urged the government to join the cease-fire, but President Juan Manuel Santos has refused.

Santos argues that agreeing to a cease-fire would give the FARC the opportunity to regroup, as it did during failed 1999-2002 talks when it was granted a Switzerland-sized safe haven.

On Wednesday, as the Cuba talks were about to resume after a break, chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle said there was little point in talking if the FARC was going to start "kidnapping" soldiers and police again.

Santos also lashed out, saying he had no intention of "normalizing or humanizing this war." He was alluding to the government's rejection of FARC demands for a prisoner swap. Having failed at that strategy, the rebels last April released what they said was their last group of 10 security force members.

The FARC's decades-long practice of ransom and politically motivated kidnapping has bred widespread rejection of the rebels. Columnist Pedro Medellin said Saturday's announcement indicate that rebels feel the "sting of public opinion."

The president's older brother, journalist Enrique Santos, said in response to emailed questions that he didn't believe the government had given the FARC an ultimatum.

"The process is going through a difficult moment but I don't see a breakdown in the short term," said the former co-director of the El Tiempo newspaper, who took part in the secretive first round of talks but is not the current negotiations. "My concern is the very slow pace of the agenda."

The FARC has stepped up hit-and-run attacks since Jan. 20, killing three customs police officers in a highway ambush in the northeastern state of Guajira Friday. The same day, it launched a three-week "armed strike" in the poor, mostly rural northwestern state of Choco, vowing to halt and torch any vehicles that take to the highway in the state.

Authorities reported nearly full compliance to the strike Friday, and a police colonel told The Associated Press on Saturday that authorities had not yet restored order. The colonel spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media.

Colombia's military said it had killed six rebels, including a front commander, in a bombing raid early Thursday in Tierralta, a traditional FARC stronghold in the northwestern state of Cordoba.

The talks in Havana are tackling the first and perhaps most difficult issue on a five-point agenda: agrarian reform.

Presidential elections are scheduled for May 2014, and President Santos says he will announce after June whether he intends to run for re-election.

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Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera in Bogota and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru contributed to this report


(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)