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BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's FARC rebels freed three captive Chinese oil workers and their translator after holding them in jungle camps for more than a year, the Defense Ministry said on Thursday, an apparent goodwill gesture as the rebels seek to negotiate a peace accord to end five decades of war.
The captives, who worked for a contractor hired by UK-based Emerald Energy, were taken hostage by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in mid-2011 as they were driving in southern Colombia, the government said. The captives were handed over to the Red Cross late on Wednesday.
The release is the second act this week that could be seen as an olive branch to the government as the warring sides hammer out a five-point peace plan that may bring an end to a conflict that has left tens of thousands dead and millions displaced since it began in 1964.
At the start of talks in Cuba on Monday, the FARC called a unilateral ceasefire for two months.
The release was a result of collaboration between the Red Cross and the Chinese government, Vice Defense Minister Jorge Enrique Bedoya told reporters.
"The government provided all the help possible so that this (liberation) could develop without any problems. We are very happy that these Chinese citizens can return to their homes," Bedoya said.
A decade-long government offensive against the FARC has pushed the rebels deep into inhospitable jungle territory, helping foreign and local oil companies explore territory that was once off-limits.
But the Marxist group has stepped up attacks against oil installations over the last year or so, bombing pipelines, kidnapping workers, and making it difficult for companies to maintain output levels.
The FARC pledged in February that it would no longer take hostages for ransom, one of the group's main sources of income along with drug trafficking and extortion, according to police sources.
After the FARC this year released a group of military and police officials it had held for more than a decade, rebel leaders repeatedly said the group was not holding any more captives.
FARC negotiators in Cuba reiterated that they hold no hostages.
"This again demonstrates the double standard and hypocrisy of the FARC, which announced that it held no more captives," Bedoya said. "This liberation shows that they do."
Jordi Raich, head of the Colombian delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said he could not confirm the government's claim that the FARC was responsible for the kidnapping. He said it was not in his ambit to investigate.
"We received (the hostages) from a group of people dressed in civilian clothes and without weapons," he told reporters.
"It's excellent news for the families after so much time of waiting and uncertainty."
French journalist Romeo Langlois was freed by the FARC in May after a month in captivity. He was the highest profile hostage since French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt was freed in a military rescue mission in 2008.
At the start of peace talks this week, the FARC ordered a unilateral ceasefire for two months and said it would call off attacks on military and economic targets, but police say it has failed to keep that vow.
The FARC was responsible for attacks in southwestern Cauca province and the destruction of two electricity towers in western Antioquia, police said, throwing into doubt rebel leader Ivan Marquez's call for the truce.
The ceasefire may have been aimed more at grabbing headlines at the start of talks than a sincere effort toward peace, some observers say. Poor communication in the jungles may also have made it impossible to reach the rank and file membership.
Others believe the FARC is fractured and the order may have been ignored.
Still, the ceasefire may provide some breathing space for oil and mining companies, many of which pay considerable sums for security to protect workers and installations.
The war costs Latin America's fourth-largest economy 1 to 2 percentage points of gross domestic product every year, according to the government, and makes large tracts of arable land unsafe due to combat or landmines.
Reporting by Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Sandra Maler and Stacey Joyce