Colombia's FARC announces halt to kidnapping

Will free remaining "prisoners of war"

— Colombia's main rebel group said Sunday it is abandoning the practice of kidnapping and will free its last remaining "prisoners of war:" 10 security force members it has held for as long as 14 years.

The leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, did provide a date for the liberation in a communique published on its website. The government says the rebels hold 12 security force members.

The FARC's announcement that it would no longer kidnap "for financial ends" was its first unequivocal statement on the practice since it took up arms in 1964. It renounces a tool that in the 1990s helped make Colombia the world's kidnapping capital.

It could advance prospects for a peace dialogue sought by the rebels, who number about 9,000 fighters. The government has insisted the FARC end all kidnappings as a minimal first step.

The rebels did not say, however that they were was abandoning hostilities. The FARC has recently stepped up hit-and-run attacks on and the military blames it for bombings and mortar attacks on two police posts in the past month that killed 15 people and wounded nearly 100, most of them civilians.

President Juan Manuel Santos responded to Sunday's statement positively but cautiously via Twitter.

"We value the FARC's announcement that it is renouncing kidnapping as an important and necessary, if insufficient, step in the right direction," he said.

As defense minister from 2006-2009, Santos oversaw operations that struck major blows to the FARC. Since he took office in 2010, Colombia's military has tracked down and killed the rebels' two top leaders. Santos has insisted on a halt to kidnapping as a condition for peace talks that the FARC is seeking.

The FARC said it was revoking a "law" its general staff approved in 2000, when Colombia's government ceded a Switzerland-sized swath of the country to the rebels for peace talks that failed two years later.

There was no halt in FARC hostilities during those talks and they collapsed after the rebels' high-profile kidnap of a lawmaker, Jorge Eduardo Gechem, who was held for six years before being released in a goodwill gesture.

Gechem was among the last political hostages freed by the FARC.

It is not known how many civilians the rebels currently hold — the government does not provide figures — but analysts say FARC revenues from ransom kidnappings in recent years represent only a sliver of income for a group whose main revenue source the cocaine trade.

Colombia's anti-kidnapping police said the FARC kidnapped 72 people during the first 11 months of 2011.

The FARC's fronts are spread all around Colombia and tend to operate with relative autonomy so it was not clear whether Sunday's announcement would mean the immediate release of any civilians they currently hold.

The rebels announced on Dec. 27 that they would free six security force members but said a month later that they were delaying the release because of a government "militarization" of the area where the release was planned.

Brazil, which has provided the International Red Cross with helicopters in past FARC liberations, subsequently agreed to help arrange the release.

Latin America's last major rebel movement, the FARC was founded in 1964. It has been releasing captives piecemeal since early 2008.

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Associated Press writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report from Lima, Peru

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