Colombia`s FARC guerrillas will on Saturday release a general whose capture derailed peace negotiations, President Juan Manuel Santos said, reviving hopes that the talks can be salvaged.
Santos, who has staked his presidency on the two-year-old peace process, said Wednesday the necessary security protocols were in place for the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to free General Ruben Alzate and two other army captives.
"In accordance with the protocols, this can be done on Saturday. So it will happen Saturday," he said.
The president said on Twitter he had ordered the suspension of military operations on the Pacific coast, a pre-condition for the captives` release.
The FARC had in recent days accused the army of stepping up activity and clashing with its fighters in Choco, the jungle-covered department where Alzate heads a task force charged with fighting rebels and drug traffickers.
Alzate, 55, was captured along with Corporal Jorge Rodriguez and army adviser Gloria Urrego on November 16 as they traveled by boat to visit a civilian energy project in the remote western region.
After FARC fighters seized him -- their highest-ranking captive in 50 years of conflict -- Santos suspended the peace talks that have been taking place for the past two years in the Cuban capital Havana.
Under a deal mediated by Cuba and Norway, which are shepherding the peace process, the FARC agreed to free the three captives, as well as two soldiers captured in combat on November 9, in order to get the talks back on track.
On Tuesday they released the two soldiers to the Red Cross, which is acting as intermediary for the handovers.
But the country is still nervously awaiting Alzate`s release, the key condition for talks to resume.
The FARC said in Havana that it had sent the government the coordinates for the drop-off location but would sweep the area first to ensure the army was not present.
"Before taking the final steps, we will have to verify that there are effectively no army troops," the rebels` peace negotiators said in a statement.
"We have to avoid any attempted ambush or attack that could put the lives of the general and his companions, and his guerrilla escorts, at risk."
The FARC claims its fighters ran into army troops as they went to free the two captive soldiers Tuesday, and had to change the drop-off location at the last minute.
In Choco, General Leonardo Pinto assured journalists that "things are on track" for the remaining three captives to be freed.The Havana talks are the most promising effort yet to end the conflict, which has killed 220,000 people and caused more than five million to flee their homes since the FARC was founded in 1964.
Political analysts said the FARC`s willingness to resolve the impasse around the general`s capture was a good sign for the peace process.
"For the first time in its history, the political variable is heavier than the military variable within the FARC," said security expert Jairo Libreros.
"The military variable has lost heft, not only because the main leaders of the military wing have died but because this may be the (FARC`s) last chance to find a sufficiently dignified exit."
Kidnappings have derailed previous attempts to reach a peace deal.
Negotiations held in Mexico from 1990 to 1991 with the FARC and two other guerrilla groups, the still-active National Liberation Army (ELN) and the now-defunct Popular Liberation Army (EPL), were called off when the EPL kidnapped former minister Argelino Duran, who died in captivity.
And talks held in Colombia from 1998 to 2002 were abruptly aborted when the FARC hijacked a plane carrying Senator Jorge Gechem.
"The FARC`s leadership is different now: a generation of communists who studied in Europe, more academic," said Carlos Medina of Colombia`s National University.