Bogota: Colombia`s FARC guerrillas freed two captive soldiers on Tuesday but demanded the army halt operations to avoid jeopardizing the separate release of a general whose capture has derailed peace talks.
The release of the two soldiers is the first step in a deal aimed at salvaging a two-year-old peace process suspended by the government after the leftist rebels captured General Ruben Alzate on November 16, the highest-ranking captive they have taken in 50 years of conflict.
The FARC handed over the soldiers -- 24-year-old Paulo Cesar Rivera and 23-year-old Jonathan Andres Diaz -- to the Red Cross as scheduled, but warned the army to stop operations to avoid any "scares" in the planned release of Alzate and two other captives.
"The FARC has fulfilled the conditions of the first phase of the Special Humanitarian Accord and will now focus its efforts on freeing General Ruben Dario Alzate ... and his companions," the guerrillas said in a statement from the Cuban capital Havana, where the peace talks had been taking place.
"We hope the operations led by the defense ministry and the military siege against the civilian population will be immediately suspended so that the release of these individuals can go ahead without any scares."
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who has made the peace talks the central plank initiative of his administration, welcomed the release of the soldiers.
"This is an important step that shows the maturity of the peace process," Santos said.
The FARC has accused the army of bombings, clashes with its fighters, troop landings and surveillance flights in Choco, the jungle-covered region where General Alzate heads a task force charged with fighting rebels and drug traffickers.
The defense ministry, which has agreed to halt local operations as a pre-condition for the captives` release, denies stepping up military activity and says its movements in Choco are aimed at protecting civilians.
Alzate, 55, who was captured along with a corporal and an adviser while traveling to visit a civilian energy project in the remote western department, is due to be freed sometime this week.
No time or place has yet been announced for the release, the crucial step to get the peace talks back on track.
FARC negotiators in Havana were upbeat.
"We think the general will be home for the weekend," rebel commander Martin Cruz, alias Rubin Morro, told AFP.
"The government just has to fulfill the protocol" to halt army operations, he said.
"We have everything prepared on our end."The army and Red Cross confirmed the FARC had released soldiers Rivera and Diaz in a rural area of Arauca, the eastern department where they were captured in combat on November 9.
They underwent a quick medical check and were transferred by helicopter to an airport in the town of Tame.
"We`re happy these two people will soon be able to return home, where their families are waiting for them," said Christoph Harmisch, head of the Red Cross in Colombia.
Relatives erupted into celebration in Carmen de Bolivar, Rivera`s hometown.
"I`m so happy for Paulo. We want him here right away," Nelson Rivera, his uncle, told journalists between laughter and tears.
Political scientist Jorge Restrepo said the hostage release deal was a good sign, but that the peace process would hang in the balance until Alzate was safely freed.
"The (FARC`s) decision not to negotiate with detainees` lives is a very important gesture for peace that reinforces the process," said Restrepo, the head of the Conflict Analysis Resource Center in Bogota.
But "we`ll stay at maximum tension until all the captives have been freed," he added.
The peace process is the most promising effort yet to end the five-decade conflict, which has defied three previous attempts.
The Colombian conflict has killed 220,000 people and caused more than five million to flee their homes since the FARC was founded in 1964 in the aftermath of a peasant uprising.