President Juan Manuel Santos broke off peace talks with Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas Monday, after the group claimed responsibility for a weekend bombing that killed five police officers and injured more than 40 others.
Santos, who has staked his presidency on hammering out peace deals, said it pained him to make the decision.
“My patience and the patience of the Colombian people have limits,” he told a crowd of people in Palmira, about 85 miles north of the capital. “I’ve taken the decision of suspending the fifth round of talks…until we see coherence between the ELN’s words and actions.”
As he made the announcement, the crowd burst into applause.
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Government and guerrilla negotiators have been meeting in Quito, Ecuador, since February 2017, hoping to reach a deal like the one that led the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to lay down its weapons last year after more than 50 years of conflict.
But talks with the smaller ELN — a Marxist-Leninist group founded in 1964 — have been fraught with problems. And the group began stepping up its attacks on the military and infrastructure earlier this month after the end of a ceasefire agreement.
On Saturday morning, as police gathered for roll call at their barracks in the coastal city of Barranquilla, a bomb went off killing five and wounding at least 41 others.
On one of its social media accounts, the ELN took responsibility for the attack saying it was in response to the government’s refusal to meet “the needs of the people.” But the group said it was also eager to find a “political solution” to the ongoing conflict.
The group did not immediately react to news of the canceled talks. In a statement Monday, the U.S. State Department condemned the attack.
Santos, who won the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for the deal he reached with the FARC, said he hoped negotiations with the ELN could eventually resume.
“I will keep working toward building peace until the last days of my administration,” he said.
The fate of the controversial peace deals has emerged as one of the principal themes of presidential elections that will take place in May. Santos, who is finishing his second four-year term, will not be running.
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