At least 10 Colombian soldiers were killed and 20 others injured – some of them seriously – after they were attacked by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels in Cauca department, the army said.
Government officials said the attack broke the FARC ceasefire announced by the guerrilla group in December as it holds peace talks with the Colombian government in Havana.
As a result, President Juan Manuel Santos lifted the March 10 order he gave for the military to stop air strikes against the rebels just as the negotiations are entering a crucial stage.
Rebels have been trying to flee military offensives for the last four months, says FARC leader
The attack, which took place Wednesday morning in Cauca’s Buenos Aires rural sector in the south of Colombia, was led by the group’s Miller Perdomo mobile column, which attacked the soldiers with explosives and machine guns, according to the army.
Cauca has for decades been a strategic guerrilla stronghold in the south and Pacific regions.
FARC leader Pastor Alape, who is in Havana taking part in the peace talks, said the rebels were attacked first, but made a new call for a bilateral ceasefire to stop the bloodshed among soldiers and guerrillas.
While he avoided questions as to whether his men attacked the officers directly, he blamed the incident on the “incoherence” of the government, which is still “ordering military operations against rebels who are obeying a ceasefire.”
Alape also charged that for the last four months the FARC rebels have been trying to flee the military offensives while honoring their ceasefire pledge.
Two civic organizations who have been monitoring the conflict reported different versions of this latest incident.
The Conflict Analysis Resource Center (CERAC) maintains that the soldiers entered the Naya river canyon to set up a control point but did not attack the rebels.
Center director Jorge Restrepo said: “It wasn’t a FARC defense operation. They also used homemade explosives and anti-personnel mines.”
However, the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation reported that the military entered a camp that was surrounded by mines and began shooting. FARC members grabbed their own weapons in defense.
“What happened in Cauca demonstrates how difficult it is to verify what occurred, and the complexity of a unilateral ceasefire agreement,” said Ariel Ávila, one of the foundation’s researchers.
The FARC are not going to pressure me into making a decision about a bilateral ceasefire”
To investigate what happened, Santos traveled to Cali – the city closest to the skirmish – where the president insisted that the FARC violated its own ceasefire with “a deliberate and unsuccessful attack.”
Santos ordered the military to hunt down the perpetrators and bring them to justice.
“I want to be clear, the FARC are not going to pressure me with vile incidents like this one into making a decision on a bilateral ceasefire,” he said.
The talks in Havana are entering a crucial stage in which both the government and the rebels are discussing possible amnesty for war criminals on both sides of the conflict and disarmament.
The FARC has been waging a more than 50-year war against the government.