Colombia’s largest guerrilla group on Monday said it would maintain the unilateral ceasefire that was declared in December, despite staging an ambush that killed 11 soldiers last week.
Speaking in Cuba at the end of the 35th round of peace negotiations, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) said the April 14 attack near the village of La Esperanza in the southern department of Cauca had been provoked by military patrols and was in self-defense.
The government claims the soldiers were massacred while they slept.
Despite the attack (and reports of other, non-lethal ambushes in recent days), FARC Commander Luciano Marín, better known by his alias Iván Marquez, said the group was standing by the ceasefire it announced last year.
“We are maintaining the unilateral ceasefire and the cessation of hostilities indefinitely, as long as we are not the object of permanent harassment by troops,” Marquez said. Even so, there are “offensive actions that can be taken in the context of legitimate self-defense,” he added.
Humberto De la Calle, the government’s chief negotiator, said there was no way for the FARC to justify the attack, and he chastised the group for not taking responsibility.
“It’s a frustrating paradox that, after months of working on measures to de-escalate the conflict and alleviate the situation in communities which still live amid the war, that something this negative could happen,” he said.
Both sides, however, said they had faith that the talks, which began in 2012, could end the country’s half-century civil conflict.
The government says the soldiers were ambushed with explosives, grenades, and automatic weapons near midnight while they were taking refuge in a sports complex. The clash left 11 dead and at least 19 soldiers wounded. On Monday, eight were still in the hospital, according to local reports.
In the wake of the attack, President Juan Manuel Santos renewed aerial bombing, which had been suspended in March. During the weekend, he said the nation’s patience is running thin and that the peace talks cannot go on forever, but he didn’t provide a clear deadline for talks to be finalized.
The attack was particularly jarring because both sides had taken substantive steps in recent months to reduce violence and civilian casualties. Along with the unilateral ceasefire and the bombing suspension, both sides had agreed to work together to identify and clear minefields.
The FARC has been pushing for an outright truce, saying it would help protect the negotiations.
On Monday, De la Calle reiterated the administration’s position that the military will keep fighting until a “verifiable and durable” bilateral ceasefire is negotiated in Havana.
In that sense, the FARC attack did not break the rules of the talks, only the government’s confidence in the group, he said.
“The biggest damage was to the credibility of the FARC,” De la Calle said.
“Hope has been shattered,” he said. “But when hope breaks it’s time to have faith.”