Bogota (AFP) – Five Colombian soldiers were killed and 10 others wounded in a bomb attack near the Venezuelan border blamed on National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas, the head of the army said Tuesday.
The attack comes a day after the ELN announced a temporary ceasefire to coincide with next month’s legislative elections.
Army General Ricardo Gomez said the soldiers were on highway security duty in a rural area near Tibu, in the Norte de Santander department, when a blast hit the first vehicle of their convoy.
“We have five of our men assassinated and 10 wounded,” Gomez told W Radio station, blaming ELN guerrillas active in the region.
The survivors have been hospitalized, one of them in serious condition, Gomez said.
“Absolute repudiation of the cowardly attack against our heroes,” tweeted President Juan Manuel Santos, vowing to “go after those responsible” – without mentioning the ELN by name.
Stalled peace talks
The ELN, which took up arms in 1964, began peace talks with the Colombian government a year ago in the Ecuadoran capital Quito. Talks however broke down in January.
Santos is hoping to reach a peace deal with the 1,500-strong rebel force similar to the one he struck with the much larger FARC, a rebel group that has since disarmed and transformed into a political party.
That peace deal ended a five decades-long conflict and guaranteed 10 seats for the FARC in Colombia’s congress.
Since peace talks broke down the ELN has carried out several bomb attacks, killing eight police officers and wounding scores of others.
Security forces in turn have captured or killed several suspected ELN members.
In announcing their March 9-13 truce, the ELN also urged Santos to set a date to resume negotiations.
Santos, who leaves office in August after a second four-year term, had positive words for the ELN’s Monday announcement. “That’s the kind of gestures we were asking for,” he said.
It’s unclear what impact the bombing will have on the resumption of peace talks if the ELN’s responsibility is confirmed.
The ELN, unlike the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas, grants military autonomy to different regions, or “fronts.”
Criminal groups also operate in the border region and benefit from the chaos.
Colombian military officials say that several ELN guerrilla leaders have taken refuge in Venezuela.
They also say that the Colombian rebels have recruited some cash-strapped Venezuelans into their group.