The country’s second-largest guerrilla group killed at least 11 soldiers and one policeman Monday, the day after this Andean nation celebrated its most peaceful regional elections in decades.
President Juan Manuel Santos said the National Liberation Army (ELN) had staged the attack near the town of Guicán, Boyacá, about 240 miles northeast of the capital, as the officials accompanied an electoral commission.
Along with the casualties, the Ministry of Defense said three soldiers were wounded in the attack and six people were missing, including two soldiers, one policeman, two civil-service officials and one indigenous guide.
The army and police are engaged in a search and rescue mission in the area.
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The patrol came under attack Monday morning after they had been sent to the area to safeguard the 130 ballots cast in the community of Bocotá, home to the U’wa indigenous group, the ministry said.
The attack is a serious setback for the administration, which has been laying the groundwork for peace talks with the Marxist ELN. Both sides have acknowledged that there are private conversations taking place and expectations were running high that formal talks would be announced soon.
“If the ELN think that with these actions they can gain political space or strengthen their position ahead of an eventual negotiation they are totally wrong,” Santos said on national television. “To the ELN and all those who are not on the path toward peace the message is clear: We will confront you with all the might and force of our military.”
The government has been negotiating with the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Havana for almost three years.
RCN radio said the deaths occurred as the patrol stumbled into a minefield placed by the guerrillas, but the Defense Ministry did not immediately confirm that report. There was also no information provided about guerrilla casualties. The ELN did not immediately take credit for the action on a website or Twitter account they’re known to control.
The attack came just hours after this Andean nation voted for governors, mayors and other local officials. Santos had called Sunday’s vote an inspiration, saying electoral violence was down 60 percent since the previous election in 2011.
“Yesterday, Colombians voted for peace,” he said Monday, “precisely so that tragic acts likes these will no longer take place.”