* Recent kidnappings could complicate peace talks
* Four soldiers killed in combat with FARC in southwest
* Oil sector has been under increasing attacks
By Helen Murphy and Jack Kimball
BOGOTA, Jan 31 Colombia's FARC rebels on
Thursday freed three oil contractors kidnapped a day earlier,
military sources said, though the guerrillas killed four
soldiers in the south as they step up pressure during peace
The kidnappings and other violent incidents 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.
The FARC released the workers, who were contracted as
engineers by Canada's Gran Tierra Energy and were
laboring in southern Colombia when they were seized on
Wednesday, according to military sources.
There have been several kidnappings of civilians in recent
months that are suspected to have been at the hands of the FARC,
but the group has never claimed responsibility.
Last year, Gran Tierra quarterly profit fell nearly 59
percent in the second quarter as oil production was hit by
pipeline disruptions. The FARC regularly attack oil lines.
President Juan Manuel 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 all past attempts for resolution.
In the southwestern Narino department, a key drug route to
the Pacific Ocean, FARC rebels killed four soldiers on Wednesday
in combat in the municipality of Policarpa.
Narino department is representative in many ways of the
major security challenges facing Colombia - rebel groups and
drug gangs sometimes fight or collude to move shipments of
cocaine where the government's presence is weak.
At the start of talks in November, 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 rebels.
KIDNAPPINGS AND INFRASTRUCTURE ATTACKS
The FARC, the biggest armed group in Latin America, seized
two policemen in the southwest last weekend, the government
said, in the first kidnapping of security forces since April,
when rebels released all officials under their control.
In the first specific rebel response to the two policemen,
chief FARC negotiator Ivan Marquez, one of the group's seven
leaders, said on Thursday that: "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."
The government asked rebels on Wednesday 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 against social inequality and the concentration of land
among a wealthy elite. But they later turned to drug-trafficking
and kidnapping to finance their activities.
Santos is credited with some of the harshest blows against
the FARC, first as defense minister and then as president,
including killing the group's leader, Alfonso Cano, in 2011.
Over the years, the FARC has held dozens of politicians,
police officers and soldiers in remote jungle hide-outs.
Hundreds of FARC members are in Colombian prisons.
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 ever remoter areas in search of crude.
But the FARC stepped up attacks last year on oil and energy
infrastructure. Its bombings of pipelines shot up nearly three
fold in the January-October period to 142, but attacks against
power transmission towers fell by nearly half in the same period
In the latest incident, Colombia's army said that the FARC
blew up an transmission tower in a rural zone in the Norte de
Santander province on Wednesday.