BOGOTA, Colombia — A massive search operation was under way for a Colombian army general whose surprise capture by leftist rebels prompted President Juan Manuel Santos to suspend two-year-old peace talks.
Gen. Ruben Dario Alzate, dressed in civilian clothes and without his normal security detail, was snatched Sunday by gunmen along with two others while surveying a rural energy project along a remote river in western Colombia. A soldier who managed to flee in the group’s boat said the kidnappers belonged to the recalcitrant 34th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
It’s the first time in a half-century of fighting that the guerrillas have taken an army general captive and it couldn’t have come at a worst moment for Santos.
Even before the surprise blow, frustration with the slow progress of peace talks taking place in Cuba and the guerrillas’ refusal to wind down attacks has been building, especially among conservative critics who allege Santos has been too lenient with the insurgents. Just this month, the FARC captured two soldiers following intense fighting in northeast Colombia — it has since offered to free them — and killed two Indians who confronted rebels hanging up pro-rebel banners on their reservation.
Calling Alzate’s abduction “totally unacceptable,” Santos said he had ordered government peace negotiators not to travel Monday to Cuba for the next round of peace talks until Alzate and the two others — an army captain and a female lawyer — are freed.
“The FARC is responsible for the life and safety of these three people,” Santos told journalists after midnight after meeting with his top military commanders before they left for the western city of Quibdo to oversee rescue efforts.
The FARC swore off kidnapping of civilians in 2012 but considers captured military personnel prisoners of war. It also has been clamoring for a cease-fire while peace talks continue, something Santos has rejected for fears it would allow the guerrillas to regroup after years of battlefield defeats at the hands of Colombia’s US-backed military.
The FARC’s 34th Front is among the group’s most entrenched and dangerous fighting units, based in the dense, water-logged jungles around Quibdo where a slew of criminal gangs and drug-traffickers also operate. Its fighters refused to abide by unilateral ceasefires declared by the FARC leadership in Havana during elections and Christmas holidays. That could complicate any attempts by the FARC’s top leadership to win his release.
A spokesman for the FARC in Havana declined to comment, saying the rebels’ negotiators were still investigating the incident.
Santos, who was re-elected in June, has staked his presidency on reaching a deal with the FARC. But he’s struggled to overcome doubts from conservative opponents and members of the military who fear he’s ceding too much power to rebels behind scores of atrocities.
“While the FARC talks about peace in Havana, here they’re committing all sorts of atrocities,” said former Peace Commissioner Camilo Gomez, adding that the talks could unravel without a major overhaul to demand the FARC demonstrate its commitment to peace. “This could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
In a sign of growing tensions with his military, the president Sunday night demanded to know why one of Colombia’s most distinguished soldiers apparently violated military protocol and set off on the Atrato River in the dangerous conflict zone dressed as a civilian without bodyguards. So far no explanation has been provided.
The U.S.-educated Alzate took over as commander this year of the newly established Titan Task Force, a 2,500-man counterinsurgency force operating from Quibdo.
Story compiled with information from The Associated Press.