BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia's president on Wednesday ordered the resumption of air raids on rebel camps after an attack by leftist guerrillas killed 11 soldiers and wounded 19, jeopardizing progress in two-year-old peace talks.
President Juan Manuel Santos, however, gave no indication the government was thinking of pulling out of the negotiations, saying the bloodshed underlined the need to end Colombia's half century conflict.
The attack occurred around midnight Tuesday in the volatile southwest department of Cauca when an army platoon sleeping in a covered sports pavilion was surprised by guerrillas firing homemade explosives and grenades. A corporal and 10 other soldiers died during the attack by a unit of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the army's 3rd Division said.
Santos condemned the attack, which he said was premeditated and not the result of any army incursion. He said he had lifted a month-old suspension on aerial bombings of FARC camps that had been trumpeted as a major milepost in the effort to end a half century of fighting.
"Let it be very clear to the FARC: I'm not going let myself be pressured by vile acts like this," Santos said, flanked by his top military commanders as he read from a prepared statement in Cali, where he traveled to oversee operations in the combat zone to apprehend the attackers.
The rebel movement responded by demanding the government initiate its own cease-fire and urging Colombia's leaders to "keep cool" and avoid any "ill-considered actions that could jeopardize the progress of the talks. The FARC's statement said the incident resulted from the "permanent offensive by government troops against our units."
Colombians took to social media to denounce the attack and urge Santos to abandon the peace talks being held in Havana.
"Santos, don't betray us anymore," former President Alvaro Uribe, a fierce critic of the negotiations, said on Twitter. "Don't justify the murder of our soldiers with this talk of war you want to end."
FARC negotiators in Cuba committed in December to a unilateral cease-fire to promote peace talks that have taken place on the communist-led island over the past two years, saying the rebels would fire weapons only if attacked by the military.
While adherence to the leadership's command has been less than complete, the latest attack was the most serious breach to date and could destroy momentum toward a deal that had been building since the FARC shocked many Colombians in November by releasing an army general that its guerrillas had accidentally captured.
Last month, both sides agreed on a plan to begin jointly removing unexploded land mines that litter large parts of the countryside. Soon afterward, the government suspended all aerial bombings of guerrilla camps, an order that Santos extended this month.
Such good-faith gestures are seen as crucial in rallying support for a deal when some of the thorniest issues, such as whether rebel leaders will serve time in jail for atrocities and the fate of U.S. drug indictments against the FARC's leadership, remain to be negotiated. The two sides have reached deals on land reform and political participation for former rebels.
The latest attack underscores one of the biggest obstacles in the way of a deal: the FARC leadership's lack of control over the estimated 7,000 guerrillas still on the battlefield. That's especially true in turbulent, lawless areas like Cauca, where rebel commanders are known to be heavily involved in drug-trafficking.
Survivors of the attack in the mountainous rural outpost of La Esperanza, or Hope, told local TV stations that they had let down their guard in part because they thought the chances of a rebel attack remote so long as the unilateral cease-fire was in place.
From Havana, the guerrilla commander known by his nom de guerre Pastor Alape said he was unaware of the circumstances that led to Tuesday's combat. But he blamed the incident on Santos' refusal to declare a government cease-fire, something the FARC has been urging since the start of negotiation.
"It's urgent for the nation, something the entire country is waiting for," Alape said.
Santos rejected such an option, repeating that he would agree to a truce only when a definitive deal to end the fighting has been struck. But he also avoided any hint he would walk away from negotiations.
"Acts like this demonstrate once again the need to accelerate the peace talks," he said.
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjoshgoodman