UPDATE 4-Colombia rebels free oil workers, 11 killed in combat

Thu Jan 31, 2013 7:33pm EST

* Recent kidnappings could complicate peace talks
    * Five soldiers killed in combat with FARC in south
    * Oil sector has been under increasing attacks
    * Six rebels killed during operations in the north


    By Helen Murphy and Jack Kimball
    BOGOTA, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Colombia's FARC rebels on
Thursday freed three kidnapped oil contractors, but six
guerrillas and five government soldiers were killed across the
country as peace talks continued abroad.
    The kidnappings and other violence came days after the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, made clear
during peace negotiations in Cuba that it would continue to
capture armed forces, possibly hampering the talks. 
    Under pressure from government forces, the FARC released the
workers, who were contracted by Canada's Gran Tierra Energy
 and were working in south Colombia when they were
seized on Wednesday, according to military sources. 
    "They're increasingly weak. They increasingly have to resort
to acts demonstrating their weakness, to terrorist acts, and now
to kidnappings," President Juan Manuel Santos said.
    Santos' government and Marxist rebels have been engaged in
peace talks in Havana since November, trying to reach an end to
a decades-long war that has killed tens of thousands and defied
past attempts at resolution.  
    
    At the start of talks, the FARC declared a two-month
unilateral ceasefire, which ended on Jan. 20 with the rebels
attacking oil and mining facilities, including two pipelines and
a coal-carrying rail line. 
    The government refused to join the ceasefire, calling it a
sham by the FARC to gain international attention. The army kept
attacking the group and carried out several aerial raids that
killed at least 34 guerrillas.
    Security forces killed six FARC rebels on Thursday, Santos
said, in a northern wilderness park that is used to transport
drugs.
    In the southwestern Narino province, also a drug route, FARC
guerrillas killed four government troops on Wednesday and  in
neighboring Putumayo province they killed one soldier, according
to the army.
   
    KIDNAPPINGS AND INFRASTRUCTURE ATTACKS
    The FARC, the biggest armed group in Latin America, seized
two policemen in the southwest last weekend, the government
said. It was the first kidnapping of security forces since
April, when rebels released all officials under their control. 
    Chief FARC negotiator Ivan Marquez, one of the group's seven
 leaders, said on Thursday: "Right now we don't have any
official report on that incident, if it was or wasn't the FARC."
    While the FARC has said it would halt kidnapping to fund its
war against the government, it never said it would stop taking
members of the armed forces as "prisoners of war."
    There have been several suspected FARC kidnappings of
civilians in recent months, but the group has never claimed
responsibility.
    The government has asked rebels to make it clear they are
not wasting time at peace talks in Cuba and genuinely want to
end the five-decade conflict.
    An escalation of hostilities could affect the progress of
the peace discussions. Santos has said he wants to achieve an
agreement within a year.
    "We're willing to stay at the table until we find a path
that leads us to peace. That's why we said that we will not get
up from the table until the desire of the people in Colombia is
fulfilled," Marquez told journalists in Havana.
    The rebels took up arms in 1964 as a Marxist agrarian group
fighting social inequality and the concentration of land among a
wealthy elite. But they turned to drug-trafficking and
kidnapping to finance their activities. Rebels deny this.
    Since a 2002 U.S.-backed offensive, security has vastly
improved in Latin America's fourth-largest oil producer,
attracting billions of dollars in investment as explorers pushed
into more remote areas in search of crude.
    But the FARC stepped up attacks on energy and oil
infrastructure in 2012. Its bombings of pipelines rose nearly
threefold from January to October to 142, though attacks against
power transmission towers fell by nearly half in the same period
to 35.
    In the latest incident, Colombia's army said the FARC blew
up a transmission tower in a rural zone in the Norte de
Santander province on Wednesday.