Colombia suspends peace talks with ELN rebels over bombings

BOGOTA — Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Monday suspended peace talks with the country’s last remaining rebel group after a series of bombings over the weekend killed seven police officers.

The next round of the year-old talks between the government and National Liberation Army had been expected to begin in the coming days in Quito, Ecuador.

“My patience and the patience of the Colombian people have limits,” Santos, winner of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end Colombia’s half-century conflict, said at an event near Bogota.

Five officers were killed and more than 40 injured when a homemade bomb exploded outside a police station in Barranquilla during a shift change early Saturday. A few hours later two more were killed and several injured by two separate bomb attacks on police targets near the coastal city.

An urban cell belonging to the ELN, as the group is known in Spanish, claimed responsibility for the first and deadliest of the three attacks, which the government initially attributed to a criminal gang operating in Barranquilla. Defence Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said a man suspected of planting the bomb and who had previously been arrested for having ties to the ELN was arrested shortly after the first attack.

In a statement Monday, the rebel group expressed its continued support for peace talks. But it said the re-establishment of a cease-fire that expired earlier this month depends on the government halting hostilities in areas under its influence.

“Until we reach another cease-fire, the military actions will continue taking place on each side,” the group said.

Santos reached a peace agreement with what had been 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.

The much-smaller ELN, whose ranks don’t surpass 2,000 fighters, was started in the 1960s by Roman Catholic priests inspired by Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba. Unlike the highly centralized FARC, the ELN’s command structure is more diffuse, making it harder for top commanders in Ecuador to control the actions of its fighters.

The group is labeled a terrorist organization by the United States.

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