BOGOTA - Colombia's leftist FARC guerrillas freed an army general Sunday in a concession to revive peace talks, but the president refused to budge on their calls for a ceasefire.
Two weeks after sending the peace process into crisis by capturing Brigadier General Ruben Alzate, their highest-ranking captive in 50 years of conflict, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia handed him and two other army captives over to the Red Cross in the jungle-covered department of Choco.
"Freed... in perfect condition," tweeted President Juan Manuel Santos, who suspended the peace talks on which he has staked his presidency over Alzate's capture.
The move paves the way for the two sides to resume the two-year-old talks in the Cuban capital Havana, the most promising bid yet to end the conflict.
But no sooner had Alzate been freed than the FARC and Santos were at loggerheads again over the issue of a ceasefire.
Santos has repeatedly refused to consider a bilateral ceasefire without a peace agreement, on grounds that the rebels would use it to regroup, lengthening the war.
In a statement from Havana, the FARC urged him to reconsider.
"The time has come for a bilateral ceasefire, or an armistice, so that no act of war in the fields of battle can be used to justify the interruption" of the peace process, they said.
They urged the government to "redesign the rules of the game" as the peace talks take up the most sensitive issues: disarmament and reparations for victims.
But although Santos said he would meet with the government's negotiating team to discuss "the terms of their return to Havana," he appeared unwilling to yield on a ceasefire.
Negotiating amid conflict
"I'm convinced that negotiating in the midst of the conflict has been the best way to preserve the essential elements of the state and prevent the talks from becoming an interminable exercise," the president said.
He praised Alzate's release, however, saying it "contributes to recovering a favourable climate to continue the talks (and) demonstrates the maturity of the process." Alzate, 55, heads a task force charged with fighting the rebels and drug traffickers rife in Choco, a remote western department that is Colombia's poorest.
He was captured with Corporal Jorge Rodriguez and army adviser Gloria Urrego on November 16 as they travelled by boat to visit a civilian energy project.
The FARC defended their capture as a legitimate act of war.
Cuba and Norway announced on November 19 that a deal had been reached for the FARC to release the three captives, plus two soldiers captured in combat on November 9, in order to get the talks back on track.
The two soldiers were freed last Tuesday.
Alzate, Rodriguez and Urrego were released Sunday morning on the banks of the Arquia River in northeastern Choco, on a day drenched by a tropical rainstorm.
The Red Cross said they were in good health and had been flown by helicopter to second city Medellin.
After being reunited with his family, Alzate will have to appear before Congress, which has summoned him to testify on his capture and explain why he was traveling in civilian clothes without a security escort.
Impact on talks
The secretary general of the Organisation of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, praised the release and voiced hope that "once this obstacle has been satisfactorily overcome, peace negotiations will be restarted as soon as possible." No date has been set for the resumption of talks.
The speed with which the crisis was resolved showed that "both sides want to continue the peace process and avoid an escalation," said Angelika Rettberg, an expert on the negotiations.
The talks in Havana, the fourth attempt at a peace deal, have made halting progress since they began in November 2012, but a comprehensive peace agreement remains elusive.
Getting them back on a sound footing may not be easy, some observers said.
"In the long run, this episode will be felt in Havana," said Christian Voelkel, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.
The FARC's leader, Timoleon Jimenez, alias Timochenko, warned pointedly last week that the government's suspension had "destroyed trust," adding: "Things can't just resume as they were." The Colombian conflict has killed more than 220,000 people and uprooted 5.3 million more since the FARC was founded in the aftermath of a peasant uprising in 1964.