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Jan 20, 2019 | US & Canada

Colombia blames Bogota car bomb on ELN rebels

By Emily Wright in Bogota - RFI
Emily Wright
Emily Wright

Colombia has blamed the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group for a car bomb attack that killed 21 people in the capital, Bogota, including the perpetrator – a 57-year-old explosives expert and long-time militant with the ELN. Thousands marched on Sunday in solidarity with the victims and their families.

As Colombia comes to terms with Thursday's deadly attack, President Iván Duque and Bogota's mayor Enrique Peñalosa asked Colombians to take to the streets Sunday in mass demonstrations to show solidarity with the families of the victims and denounce terrorism.

Addressing a crowd wearing white handkerchiefs and carrying posters with messages such as "No to terrorism", "I want peace" and "I am a policeman."

President Duque said that Colombians must "march as citizens" and "with deep patriotic conviction."

Twenty police cadets, aged between 17 and 22, were killed and 68 others injured when a grey pick-up truck, laden with 80 kilogrammes of the explosive pentolite, detonated after hitting a wall in the General Santander police academy, on Thursday morning.

Thursday's attack has shocked and outraged a nation that was starting to let its guard down after decades of conflict between leftist guerrilla groups, paramilitaries and the state.

Among the crowd gathered in Bogotá was Andrés Roso, a postdoctoral student at the National University. Wearing white, and carrying a Colombian flag, he said he was marching because Thursday's events had shocked him “to the core.”

“I don't want the country to go back to a time when car bombs were frequent and everyone lived in fear,” he said.

It's a thought echoed by Oscar Suarez, a furniture salesman from the department of Antioquia. Carrying his 18-month-old grandson, he said that Thursday's attack had left him “deeply saddened that we haven't yet closed the door on violence, and peace feels very far away.”

On Friday, Colombia blamed the leftist ELN for the bombing, dealing a big blow to the peace process. President Duque then called on Cuba, a host and one of the guarantors of the peace process, to hand over the 10 ELN commanders who are currently in Havana for the stalled peace talks.

The talks were aimed at ending more than five decades of war with the rebel group. After reinstating arrest warrants, Duque said that Cuba must not protect the rebels. He also warned that Colombia would hold the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro “accountable” for protecting terrorists.

In a televised address to his compatriots Friday evening, Duque cited a long list of 400 terrorist attacks attributed to the guerrillas since peace talks began in 2017.

“It's clear to all of Colombia that the ELN has no true desire for peace,” Duque said.

True to his election promises, Duque has taken a hard line against the rebel group. While Duque has stopped short of shutting the door entirely the peace process with the ELN, he repeated his demands that the groups immediately cease all attacks and release 16 people it is believed to be holding captive as a condition for restarting stalled talks.

The ELN, which was formed by radical Catholic priests in 1964, has not yet claimed responsibility or issued a public statement.

The 2,000-strong ELN is considered the last active rebel group in the country. Peace talks with the ELN began in February 2017 under President Santos, but Duque put them on hold when he took power in 2018. After Thursday's attack, Colombia's High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos said there would be "no space for dialogue with the ELN until they hand over all the kidnapped people and completely renounce their criminal acts."

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