Conflict flares anew as Colombia, rebels resume talks

Colombia's armed conflict flared up again Thursday with the combat deaths of four soldiers even as the government and leftist rebels resumed peace talks in Havana.

Rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) clashed with troops early Thursday in southern Colombia, leaving two soldiers wounded in addition to the four killed, the military said in a statement.

They were the military's first combat casualties since the FARC ended a two-month unilateral ceasefire on January 20.

The fighting, which broke out on the same day that peace negotiations resumed in Havana, erupted when soldiers tried to block rebels entering the town of Policarpa in southern Narino province.

Since the ceasefire ended, FARC rebels also have kidnapped two policemen and bombed a section of an oil pipeline in southern Putumayo province.

The FARC confirmed Wednesday it was holding the two police officers, calling them "prisoners of war."

The abductions were the first by the FARC since April 2012 when it freed what it said was the group's last 10 captive police and soldiers.

The statement also drew a distinction between the capture of security forces and the kidnappings for ransom, in the past a major source of income for the rebels.

The rebel group's delegation in Havana on Thursday, meanwhile, denied having any information about the two captive police officers, and reaffirmed their willingness to continue peace talks with the government of Juan Manuel Santos.

"So far, we have no official report related to (the kidnapping) or about whether or not it was carried out by the FARC," chief negotiator Ivan Marquez said, moments before resuming negotiations after a six-day break.

Asked if the policemen would be released, Marquez, who is the rebel group's number two official, said: "We have to wait to see what the position is of whatever bloc or group that has undertaken that action."

Marquez said the FARC was committed to peace talks "until we find a path that leads us to peace."

The talks, which began in November, are the first in a decade. Three previous attempts at a negotiated end to the conflict failed.

The FARC, formed in 1964, has an estimated 8,000 fighters engaged in Latin America's oldest insurgency.

The government delegation, headed by former Colombian vice president Humberto de la Calle, made no statement as it arrived Thursday at the convention center in Havana, the site where the talks have been held since they got underway on November 19.