Colombia freezes peace talks with ELN rebels after attacks

BOGOTA, Jan 29, 2018 (AFP) – Colombia’s president on Monday froze peace negotiations with the ELN rebel group after weekend bomb attacks blamed on the guerrillas killed seven police officers.

The developments threw into peril efforts to definitively end Colombia’s half century of conflict that recently had looked close to resolution.

“I have taken the decision to suspend the start of the fifth cycle of negotiations that were scheduled for the coming days, given that ELN is not matching its words with actions,” President Juan Manuel Santos said in an address.

Santos’ government reached a historic peace agreement with the biggest rebel group, the FARC, in November 2016, but a similar deal with the smaller ELN has still not been reached.

When a ceasefire with the ELN expired on January 10, the government said it was suspending talks with the rebel group, which returned to targeting security forces and oil installations.

Over the weekend, three bombs went off at police stations in three locations: two in the Caribbean port city of Barranquilla and one in Santa Rosa, in the department of Bolivar.

The ELN claimed responsibility for the worst of the attacks, which killed five officers and wounded 41 in Barranquilla on Saturday as police were assembling for roll-call.

Santos’ defense minister, Luis Carlos Villegas, put the blame for all three “of these terrible acts of terrorism” on the ELN.

He hinted that Santos could respond by ordering the military to go on offensive against the rebel group.

A 31-year-old suspect in the Saturday blast was taken into custody, with Villegas saying: “This person has a very clear record with the ELN.”

Five police were injured in the second Barranquilla bombing, which exploded at another police station early Sunday.

Two more police officers were killed when a bomb went off late Saturday at their outpost in Santa Rosa.

Santos, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016, had hoped to make peace with the ELN to end a conflict that has drawn in drug traffickers and right-wing paramilitary groups as well as the leftist guerrilla forces.

His government opened the talks with the ELN a year ago in Ecuador after reaching the peace agreement with the FARC, which has now disarmed and transformed itself into a political party.

After the end of the ceasefire, Santos had said on January 21 that he would seek a new truce with the ELN in a bid to salvage the talks.

The rebels had indicated a willingness to resume negotiations.

But the ELN, unlike the FARC, has a federated structure with autonomous military units, which experts say makes a settlement more difficult.

Among those denouncing the latest attacks was Rodrigo Londono, the former leader of the FARC and now a presidential candidate in elections set for later this year.

“All our solidarity is for the relatives of the slain police,” he wrote on Twitter.

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