Colombia's ELN rebels claim deadly police academy attack

National Liberation Army said suicide bombing was a reprisal after authorities failed to respect a unilateral ceasefire.

    Colombia's ELN rebels claim deadly police academy attack
    A man holds a rose in his mouth at a memorial outside the General Francisco de Paula Santander Police Academy [John Wilson/AP]

    Colombia's leftist ELN rebels have claimed responsibility for the bombing of a police academy in Bogota that killed 20 people as well as the attacker and derailed peace talks being held in Cuba.

    The National Liberation Army (ELN) said Thursday's vehicle bombing was a reprisal attack after the government of President Ivan Duque failed to respect a unilateral ceasefire declared by the rebels over Christmas.

    "The president did not respect the gesture of peace [and] his response was to carry out military attacks against us," the group said in a statement on Monday on its website.

    Specifically, ELN said Colombian troops bombed a camp on December 25.

    "It is then very disproportionate that while the government is attacking us, we cannot respond in self-defence," it said. "The operation carried out against these installations and troops is lawful within the law of war, there were no non-combatant victims."

    The attack was a major setback to two years of peace talks - first hosted by Ecuador and currently by Cuba - that failed to go beyond the exploratory stage before stalling when Duque took power in August 2018.

    Future is peace?

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    ELN proposed "a political debate on these issues", saying "the road of war is not the future of Colombia, it is peace".

    On Saturday, Colombia demanded that Cuba hand over ELN negotiators who were in Havana for peace talks. 

    Duque announced he was reinstating arrest warrants for 10 ELN members who are part of the group's delegation to the Cuba talks, and said he was revoking "the resolution creating the conditions that allow their stay in that country".

    ELN urged the government delegation to come back to the talks.

    "President Duque ... we remind you that the best thing for the country is to send your delegation back to the negotiating table, and to give continuity to the peace process," the statement said. 

    In an interview with AFP news agency, Pablo Beltran, ELN's chief negotiator, said the rebels demanded government guarantees that their peace delegation could return to the country from Cuba within 15 days.

    "We are hoping the government will give us guarantees for the return" of the 10-man delegation," Beltran said.

    He added that his group was simply responding to the government's "attacks".

    "No one can demand we sit on our hands if we're under attack," Beltran said.

    Protest march

    Thousands of Colombians marched throughout the country on Sunday to denounce violence.

    The huge crowd descended on Bogota's iconic Plaza Bolivar while chanting slogans such as "down with the terrorists" and "no more violence". They were wearing white clothes and waving white flags.

    Colombia protests over deadliest attack in 16 years (2:31)

    Duque and his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, were among those at the march. 

    "For me, it is a very good signal that the country is united around a very important cause, which is to say no to violence and no to terrorism," Santos told Al Jazeera. 

    Yet there were clashes along the route as some students demanded the government keep the option open for peace negotiations with ELN.

    "We can't let the government instil fear and promote the return of war and militarisation," said protester Julian Rodriguez.

    "A negotiated peace is the only way out of this. We need the government to negotiate with the ELN."  

    Peace talks are aimed at ending more than five decades of rebellion by Marxist-inspired fighters.

    Colombia has experienced several years of relative calm since the 2016 peace accord signed by Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels.

    With the landmark agreement turning the former rebels into a political party, the smaller ELN is considered the last active armed group in the country.

    Colombia's President Ivan Duque takes part in a rally against violence [Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters]


    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies