Colombia's leftist FARC rebels freed an army general and two other captives on Sunday, paving the way for peace talks in Cuba to resume in the quest to end five decades of conflict.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) handed over Gen. Ruben Alzate and his companions - Corporal Jorge Contreras and civilian lawyer Gloria Urrego - to a humanitarian mission led by the International Red Cross early Sunday. The group was shuttled by helicopter to a military base near Medellin, from where they are to be transferred to Bogota.
"Freed ... in perfect condition," President Juan Manuel Santos said on his Twitter account, adding that they would be reunited with their families as soon as weather permitted.
Santos had halted negotiations in Havana two weeks ago after FARC seized five hostages, including Alzate, disrupting the push to end violence that has killed more than 200,000 people.
Release of hostages
Santos refused to allow the talks, which had advanced farther than previous attempts, to continue until the hostages were freed. Alzate, Contreras and Urrego were released in a jungle area near where they were seized in the Pacific province of Choco.
The rebels freed two other soldiers captured a week before the general on Tuesday, meaning all five hostages have now been released. The Red Cross said those released on Sunday were fit to be flown by helicopter to the city of Medellin.
Santos said he would now meet his team of negotiators to discuss their return to the two-year-old peace talks in Cuba.
Alzate was the highest-ranking military officer captured by the rebels in 50 years of fighting and the incident immediately plunged into crisis peace talks taking place in Cuba.
Now free, the 55-year-old counterinsurgent expert, Alzate, will have to answer tough questions about why he apparently violated military protocol and ventured upstream into the rebel-dominated Atrato River dressed as a civilian and without his normal security detail.
In a statement posted online on Sunday confirming the hostages' release, the FARC negotiating team in Havana reiterated its demand for a cease-fire during peace talks, a request Santos has repeatedly said is out of the question.
The speed with which the crisis was resolved showed that both sides were keen to avoid an escalation that could do permanent damage to the peace talks, said Angelika Rettberg, an expert on the peace process.
Some material for this report came from Reuters, AP and AFP.