BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos said new rebel attacks Wednesday have prompted him to recall his chief negotiator to peace talks with the country’s last remaining insurgent group in a setback for efforts to end a half-century of political violence in the South American nation.
The reported clashes came hours after the expiration of a temporary bilateral cease-fire that the United Nations, church leaders and government officials had praised as an important advance in reducing violence and moving toward an end to the nation’s final rebel conflict.
Rebels with the National Liberation Army, known by its Spanish acronym ELN, and government delegates had both expressed hopes of reaching a new agreement on an extended case-fire during a fresh round of peace talks that were expected to start Wednesday in Ecuador.
“Inexplicably, the ELN not only refused, but they reinitiated terrorist attacks this morning,” Santos said in a short televised address. “On the exact day new talks were slated to begin.”
Santos said he has asked chief negotiator Gustavo Bell to immediately return from Quito to “evaluate the future of the process” and ordered Colombia’s military to respond to the new aggressions with force. The Ministry of Defense announced less than an hour later that authorities had detained two ELN rebels on weapons and terrorism charges after being found with drugs and gun cartridges.
“My commitment to peace has been and will be unwavering,” Santos said. “But peace is obtained through willpower and concrete acts. Not just with words.”
Colombia reached an historic peace agreement with the nation’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in late 2016, ending Latin America’s longest-running conflict. The end of that conflict has been hailed internationally though it has also opened a new power struggle in remote areas previously controlled by FARC rebels and still occupied by ELN combatants.
Peace talks with the smaller ELN, whose founders in the 1960s included radical Roman Catholic priests, began last February. While the FARC peace agreement is credited with paving the way toward negotiations with the ELN, analysts say peace talks with ELN rebels also present distinct challenges.
In a statement, Colombia’s peace delegation said there were four new attacks early Wednesday, including a grenade launched at marines. The nation’s largest petroleum company said there was a “possible attack” on an oil pipeline in Aguazul, about 300 kilometers (185 miles) northeast of capital Bogota. Workers detected a drop in pressure and immediately suspended operations.
“These acts are not just an attack against an oil pipeline,” the government peace delegation said in a statement. “They are a direct affront to the community.”
ELN rebel negotiators said the new attacks “occur in the middle of a complex conflict” and shouldn’t alter the course of negotiations. They reiterated their commitment toward reaching an agreement on a new cease-fire that “overcomes the difficulties of the prior.”
A spokeswoman for the delegation said Bell’s recall did not mean peace talks have been suspended, instead characterizing them as a “call for consultation.”
Church leaders and the United Nations had urged both sides to extend the cease-fire, saying the temporary reprieve had reduced violence in a majority of the largely poor, rural areas affected by the conflict, “tangible benefits that give the peace process more legitimacy.”
Under the temporary agreement, the 1,500-member ELN pledged to renounce hostage-taking, recruitment of minors and attacks on infrastructure. The government in turn vowed to improve conditions for jailed rebels as well as boost protections for leftist activists in areas dominated by the ELN.
ELN guerillas were accused of violating the accord in two separate incidents that left a total of 14 people dead, including an indigenous leader. The rebels also accused the government of failing to live up to their end of the accord during the 101-day cease-fire.
The pause in negotiations represents a substantial setback for the ELN rebels and may be a reflection of disagreement among hardliners within the organization regarding the merits of the cease-fire, said Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America think tank.
Unlike the FARC, ELN rebels have a more diffuse hierarchy that would make abiding by the terms of a cease-fire more difficult to achieve. Overall, Isacson characterized the talks as slow and challenging in the absence of a specific agenda and a spread-out chain of command.
He said the latest scuffle in talks is not irreversible though nonetheless likely to put a halt on further dialogue at least through Colombia’s upcoming congressional and presidential elections.
“It’s hard to imagine anything happening of substance,” he said. “The best you can hope is that they don’t break off.”
Associated Press writer Edith Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.