Colombia has suspended peace talks with Marxist guerrillas as the army hunts for a general they say was kidnapped Sunday in a remote region of the nation’s Pacific coast.
General Ruben Alzate was captured in Choco province in western Colombia along with a corporal and a civilian, according to President Juan Manuel Santos. Alzate was unarmed and dressed in civilian clothes when he was seized by rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Santos said.
“Tomorrow the peace negotiators were due to travel to Havana for a new phase of talks,” Santos said in an audio file distributed by his press office. “I'll tell them not to travel, and to suspend the negotiations until this incident is cleared up, and these people are freed.”
Government negotiators have held talks with the FARC in Cuba since 2012, seeking a deal to end the nation’s 50-year conflict. The general’s capture may cause the negotiations to break down if the guerrillas do not release him soon, said Adam Isacson, a Colombia specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America.
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“Hopefully they'll let him go in a few days and this is all over,” said Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America who visited Choco earlier this year and met Alzate. “If he’s still a captive in three or four weeks, then the process is in danger of collapsing.”
Santos ordered Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon to travel to Choco to oversee a search and rescue operation and said he would hold the guerrillas responsible for the lives and safety of the hostages. In a Twitter post, Santos demanded to know why Alzate breached security rules and traveled around a conflict zone in civilian dress.
Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas told reporters in Medellin that the incident won’t affect the economy or damage investor confidence in Colombia. Markets were closed Monday for a public holiday.
The government has rejected the FARC’s calls for a cease- fire during the negotiations, arguing it would allow them to regroup. Sabotage attacks on oil pipelines have surged in recent years as the rebels try to damage Colombia’s biggest export industry and tie down army units defending the infrastructure.
Terrorist attacks on infrastructure rose to 400 last year from 116 in 2010, according to the Defense Ministry, while acts of extortion more than quadrupled over the same period.
Alzate sought to promote a “hearts and minds” approach to counterinsurgency inspired by U.S. training and at their interview had a desk piled with English-language books on counterinsurgency tactics, Isacson said.
Boyd reported from Santiago.