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Colombia's FARC rebels free two police patrolmen

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

* FARC promises to release third captive by Saturday

* Government and rebels to resume peace talks next week

BOGOTA, Feb 15 (Reuters) - Colombia's FARC rebels on Friday freed two police patrolmen it seized last month, in an apparent goodwill gesture ahead of the next round of tense peace negotiations with the government.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the biggest armed group in Latin America, released the two uniformed officers even as the rebel leadership pledged to continue seizing members of the security forces until peace is reached.

Patrolmen Cristian Camilo Yate and Victor Gonzalez were handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross in a mountainous area of southern Colombia, where the rebel group still holds a soldier.

The FARC, considered a terrorist group by the United States and European Union, promised to free the soldier by Saturday.

Television carried images of the two men embracing former Senator Piedad Cordoba after being freed.

"We are thankful of and recognize this humanitarian gesture that undoubtedly is an important question for peace in the country," said Cordoba, who was stripped of her senate seat for alleged ties to the FARC and has been involved in many releases.

The liberation comes after a difficult last round of talks in Havana during which the two sides took public swipes at each other in response to an increase of violence, attacks on economic infrastructure and kidnappings. Talks are due to resume next week.

For more than a decade, U.S.-backed strikes against the FARC have severely weakened the rebels and limited their ability to attack the country's economic drivers, helping attract billions of dollars in foreign investment.

But the FARC has escalated attacks since ending a unilateral ceasefire on Jan. 20 in a bid to pressure President Juan Manuel Santos to end hostilities while the two sides negotiate.

Seven soldiers were killed in combat with the FARC on Wednesday in heavy fighting in the south, evidence that the guerrillas are negotiating from a position of relative strength.

While Colombians are hopeful Santos's gamble at peace will succeed, he faces a monumental task attempting peace with the FARC, which has holed up in Colombia's jungle territory since 1964 and imposed tough demands in past negotiations.

The government has demanded that the FARC stop its practice of kidnapping while the guerrillas have made clear they will continue to seize members of the armed forces, who they regard as prisoners of war. (Reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by David Brunnstrom)

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/thomson-reuters/130215/colombias-farc-rebels-free-two-police-patrolmen