HAVANA/BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian Marxist rebels agreed to release an army general captured by their comrades over the weekend, a move that may lead to a resumption of peace talks and defuse a crisis that threatened to extend five decades of war.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) promised to free General Ruben Dario Alzate and four others captured in the past two weeks "as soon as possible" after reaching agreement on liberation terms with the government and guarantor nations Cuba and Norway.
President Juan Manuel Santos's office responded immediately to the announcement, pledging to resume talks as soon as the hostages are free.
Alzate and two others were seized on Sunday by a FARC patrol as they left a boat in the poor and crime-ridden coastal region of Choco, prompting Santos to halt talks and throwing into doubt the two-year peace process under way in Cuba.
Just days earlier, the rebels had kidnapped two soldiers in eastern Arauca department.
"The government will give its total collaboration to guarantee the safe return of these people to their homes, which we hope will be in the shortest time possible," Santos's office said in a brief statement.
"Once they are all free, the government's delegation will return to Havana."
The FARC's decision to release the captives may counter critics of the peace process who say the rebels are not serious about ending Latin America's longest-running war, which has killed more than 200,000 people since it began in 1964.
The suspension of talks is the most serious setback to peace efforts after months of complicated discussions resulted in partial accords on three out of five agenda items.
The most recent peace process with the FARC collapsed in 2002 after the group used the breathing room of a demilitarized zone to build its fighting force, intensify its cocaine trafficking, and take hostages.
The final straw came when the FARC boarded a commercial plane and seized a senator, who was held captive for six years.
Santos has staked his presidency on bringing peace to Colombia, winning re-election this year against a right-wing opponent who threatened to ditch the talks and finish the FARC on the battlefield.
Even while security has improved massively over the last decade or so, peace talks have been taking place amid continued conflict. The rebels have renewed their call for a bilateral ceasefire that they say would improve the climate for negotiations.
Alzate is the highest-ranking military hostage ever taken by the FARC. A soldier and a civilian lawyer were captured along with him.
The FARC says it has stopped kidnapping for ransom but maintains military personnel are fair targets in the absence of a ceasefire. Alzate was considered a prisoner of war.
Certain undisclosed conditions must be met before the FARC will free the hostages, representatives from Cuba and Norway said in Havana.
Santos, after harshly condemning the FARC's move in the last few days, set a more conciliatory tone during a speech in central Tolima on Wednesday, expressing hope that negotiations would resume.
"We need to abandon our weapons, the violence and end this armed conflict," Santos said in the town of Ataco. "That is why I hope this impasse that has appeared in the Havana negotiations will be resolved soon."
A massive rescue operation in Choco's dense jungle terrain had been under way since Sunday, though there were fears a military effort to release Alzate could endanger the hostages. It is unclear whether orders still stand for FARC fighters to kill captives if a rescue is attempted.
The army offered a 100 million peso ($46,000) reward for information leading to the hostages' rescue, military sources confirmed to Reuters on Wednesday.
The deal was announced in Havana by representatives of the Cuban and Norwegian governments, the guarantors of the peace talks: Rodolfo Benitez of host nation Cuba, and Rita Sandberg of Norway, which is acting as a facilitator.
Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb and Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Ken Wills