HAVANA – Leaders of the Colombian rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, acknowledged the capture of army general Rubén Darío Alzate in a written statement read at a news conference on Tuesday.
The announcement came a day after President Manuel Santos demanded that the group immediately release Gen. Alzate. He halted the peace talks underway in Havana, Cuba, and said the government will not return to the negotiating table until he is released.
Alzate, dressed in civilian clothes, was snatched by gunmen along with two others while visiting a hamlet along a remote river in western Colombia on Sunday.
A soldier who managed to flee in the group's boat and reportedly had advised the general against traveling deep into the jungle, said the rebels belonged to the 34th Front of the FARC, a unit that is notorious for habitually violating cease-fires.
It's the first time that the guerrillas have taken an army general captive, and it couldn't have come at a worse moment for Santos.
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Even before Santos suspended two-year-old peace talks, frustration with the slow progress and the guerrillas' refusal to wind down attacks had been building. 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.
Calling Alzate's abduction "totally unacceptable," Santos ordered government peace negotiators not to travel Monday to Cuba as planned for the next round of peace talks until Alzate and the two others — an army captain and a female lawyer advising the army on a rural energy project — are freed.
"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 Monday night in a five-minute, televised address.
Amid the tough talk, little is known about the general's whereabouts or why he apparently violated military protocol and set off on the Atrato River in the dangerous zone dressed as a civilian. A massive search operation mounted Monday has so far yielded few leads and residents of the 800-person hamlet of wooden shacks where the group was taken told local media they didn't know about the visit.
The FARC considers captured military personnel to be 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 fear it would allow the guerrillas to regroup like they did in the last attempt at peace that ended in 2002.
The FARC's 34th Front is among the group's most entrenched and fiercest fighting units, based in the dense, water-logged jungles around Quibdo where a slew of criminal gangs and drug traffickers also operate. Its members repeatedly violated unilateral cease-fires declared by the FARC leadership in Havana during elections and Christmas holidays.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.