BOGOTA, Colombia — In what appears to be a startling setback for the peace talks, Colombia today announced it will renew air raids on guerrilla camps after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC] killed 10 soldiers during a deadly midnight raid.
Speaking from Cauca, a southwestern province in Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos announced on Wednesday afternoon that he hopes to accelerate ongoing peace talks with the guerrillas, but that he will not allow his army to stand by with weapons down as rebels launch deadly attacks.
"I've told the armed forces to lift the suspension on bombings [on FARC camps] until a new order comes through," Santos told TV cameras.
Colombia's army said that on Tuesday night the guerrillas sneaked into a mobile base in a rural area of Cauca, where they detonated bombs and grenades, killing 10 and injuring nine more.
The deadly raid, the largest in recent years by the FARC, comes as the government and the guerrillas attempt to hammer out the final sticking points on a peace deal that would end five decades of war.
The FARC published a statement Wednesday morning describing the Tuesday night incident as part of their regular combat operations.
The rebels blamed the government for the deaths of the soldiers for pursuing military actions in Cauca, while peace talks take place in Cuba.
“Whether it was an ambush, a counterambush, or a raid…what matters is that there are dead Colombians, and that’s what has to stop,” FARC spokesman Pastor Alape said in Havana.
The latest attack by the FARC, and the government's decision to resume air raids, fly in the face of recent efforts to scale-down Colombia’s armed conflict.
On Dec. 20 the FARC declared a unilateral ceasefire in an effort to drum up support for the peace talks. Since then and previous to last night, the guerrilla group had launched only a handful of minor attacks against the Colombian military.
The government responded to the FARC’s gesture last March by saying it would cease its air raids against guerrilla camps for one month. President Santos said at that time that he would extend the moratorium on air raids if the FARC upheld its ceasefire.
Both sides had also said they would work together to clear minefields in Colombia.
During the peace talks in Cuba, the Santos administration has made agreements with the guerrillas that would almost guarantee them congressional seats. The government is also considering giving guerrilla leaders short prison sentences if they agree to lay down their weapons.
But now all that appears to be at risk. Tuesday’s fatal attack by the guerrillas has sparked a heated debate on what Colombia's government should do next.
Alfredo Rangel, a senator for the conservative Centro Democratico party, says Santos needs to demand that the rebels halt all military actions and concentrate all their troops in one place, so the government can more effectively monitor their activities.
“Guerrilla armies that made successful peace negotiations with the Colombian government in the past had all their troops concentrated in one place,” Rangel told Caracol Radio. “Historically in Colombia, peace talks that have been carried out while fighting is going on [in the countryside] have failed.”
Erbin Hoyos, a Colombian war journalist, said that the peace talks should continue but that the government should put more military pressure on the guerrillas to force them into signing a treaty. “Air raids must resume immediately," Hoyos tweeted, on Wednesday morning.
Jorge Restrepo, director of CERAC, a think tank that focuses on Colombia’s armed conflict, said Colombian society should pressure the guerrillas to control violence. But he called for the peace talks to continue because they have already produced “positive dividends,” such as a decrease in kidnappings by the guerrillas.
Adam Isacson, a Colombia analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank, said that FARC units in Cauca could be tiring of the guerrilla's unilateral ceasefire. A month ago, the army killed an important FARC commander in western Colombia, and Isacson suspects the guerrillas could have been trying to retaliate.
"The past couple of weeks have seen a few attacks that appear clearly initiated by the FARC" Isacson told Fusion in an email. "The FARC may be pressuring for a bilateral ceasefire, but political opinion in Colombia may instead lead to an end to the [government's] bombing halt," Isacson said on Wednesday morning.
Isacson was right about the bombings. The order to resume air raids came in just two hours after we got his email.
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.