The Colombian air force was ordered to resume bombing the country’s largest guerrilla group Wednesday after rebels ambushed an army patrol overnight, killing at least 11 and injuring 19.
The midnight attack was the deadliest since the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and government negotiators began meeting in Havana in 2012 to hammer out a peace deal to end the half-century conflict, according to local analysts.
President Juan Manuel Santos accused the guerrillas of breaking their own unilateral cease-fire and attacking the soldiers unprovoked. Santos also said he was resuming aerial attacks on the guerrillas, which had been suspended since March, as part of a series of steps to reduce violence amid the negotiations.
On Wednesday, speaking from Havana, the FARC suggested they’d been forced into the action as a defensive measure.
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“By all accounts this [attack] was caused by the government’s incoherence — ordering military operations against guerrillas that had called a cease-fire,” said FARC Commander Felix Antonio Muñoz, known as Pastor Alape. “Be it an ambush, a counter-ambush, an assault … what’s important is that there are dead Colombians and that’s what we have to stop.”
As the news broke, Santos traveled to Cali — Colombia’s third-largest city about 50 miles from where the attack took place — to oversee the response.
Santos said that if the FARC were trying to force him into a bilateral cease-fire, their tactics had backfired.
“I want to make it very clear for the FARC,” Santos said. “I will not be pressured by infamous acts like this.”
He said the armed forces would cease their attacks only if there is a “definitive and verifiable” peace deal.
Colombia’s army said that a patrol near the village of Esperanza in the department of Cauca came under attack at 11:30 p.m. Tuesday by the FARC’s Miller Perdomo mobile column. Using explosives, grenades and automatic weapons, the guerrillas killed one officer and ten soldiers, and injured at least 19 more. There were no immediate reports of guerrilla casualties.
The clash has given ammunition to those who distrust the FARC and the peace process.
“The government facilitated and legalized this crime,” former President Alvaro Uribe told reporters Wednesday. He suggested that the government’s decision to suspend bombing had encouraged the attack and demoralized the armed forces.
On Twitter, Santos shot back, saying the attack proves that a negotiated deal is more important than ever.
“These grave acts show us the need to accelerate the negotiations and put an end to this conflict,” he wrote. “This is the war that we have to finish.”
While Santos has not suspended talks, it is a blow to recent progress, said María Victoria Llorente, the director of the Fundación Ideas para la Paz, a nonprofit that studies the conflict.
Along with the unilateral cease-fire and the government’s suspension of bombing raids, the two parties had recently agreed to work together to identify and deactivate minefields.
The cease-fire, in particular, had reduced civilian casualties considerably, she said.
“Now, I fear we’re going to lose the momentum we’ve built toward deescalating violence, which was critical from a humanitarian point of view,” she said.
It’s also a blow to public perception of the peace process. The negotiations had been winning support and Santos has talked about accelerating the pace, but that’s unlikely now, she said.
Colombia’s Conflict Analysis Resource Center (CERAC) said the FARC had broken its unilateral cease-fire on 11 separate occasions, but Tuesday’s raid took more lives than any FARC action since negotiations began in October 2012.
The attack also shows that the FARC high command, or secretariat, “has very little operational control over its guerrilla units, particularly its mobile columns and militias, which have proven to be the major obstacle in this peace process,” CERAC said in a report.
Despite the setback, negotiators have made progress on three out of six points of the peace agenda, including the FARC’s future participation in politics, rural land reform and drug-trafficking policies. But thorny issues remain, including the recognition and reparation of victims and the mechanics of verifying any peace deal.
The Cauca department, where the attack took place, has long been at the epicenter of Colombia’s conflict, as it’s a drug trafficking corridor to the Pacific and is home to illegal mining — two important revenue sources for guerrillas and criminal gangs.