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ELN rebels claim responsibility for car bomb attack on Bogota police academy

Luisa Gonzalez, Reuters | People take part in a candlelight vigil for victims near the scene of a car bomb explosion in Bogota, Colombia, on January 18, 2019.

Colombia's leftist ELN rebels have claimed responsibility for a car bomb at a police academy in Bogota that killed at least 20 people as well as the attacker and derailed peace talks being held in Cuba.

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"The operation carried out against these installations and troops is lawful within the law of war, there were no non-combatant victims," the National Liberation Army (ELN) said in a statement released early Monday on its website.

It added the academy was a military installation where cadets received training to become intelligence operatives and conduct military operations.

"The president did not respect the gesture of peace" and "his response was to carry out military attacks against us", it said.

The ELN said Colombian troops had bombed a camp on December 25, affecting a family of peasants who were nearby.

The attack was a major setback to two years of peace talks with the ELN – first hosted by Ecuador and currently by Cuba – that failed to go beyond the exploratory stage before stalling when President Ivan Duque took power in August 2018.

In its wake, Duque announced that he was reinstating arrest warrants for 10 ELN members who are part of the group's delegation to the Cuba talks and said he was revoking "the resolution creating the conditions that allow their stay in that country".

Thousands of people marched throughout Colombia on Sunday to condemn the car bombing, the deadliest attack with explosives in Bogota since 2003.

Days of mourning

Colombia’s government declared three days of mourning Thursday for the at least 20 people who died in the car bomb and the 68 others who were wounded.

The defence ministry said the “terrorist act” was carried out using a vehicle packed with 80 kilograms (around 175 pounds) of explosives.

“All Colombians reject terrorism and we’re united in fighting it,” Duque tweeted in the aftermath.

>> Colombia car bomb attack reflects 'internal tensions within ELN rebels'

The bomber, who authorities confirmed was killed in the attack, struck at the General Francisco de Paula Santander Officer’s School in the south of Bogota during a promotion ceremony for cadets.

Public prosecutor Nestor Humberto Martinez on Thursday named suspect Jose Aldemar Rojas Rodriguez as the “material author of this abominable crime”.

Martinez said Rojas Rodriguez entered the school compound at 9:30 am (1430 GMT) driving a grey 1993 Nissan Patrol truck, but gave no details about the explosion.

He said the truck underwent an inspection in July in the Arauco department on the border with Venezuela, a traditional stronghold of ELN Marxist guerrillas.

‘Brutal act of terrorism’

Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno said one of the dead was an Ecuadoran cadet, while a second suffered light injuries.

“The brutal act of terrorism in Bogota took the life of a compatriot,” Moreno said on Twitter.

“My sincerest thoughts go to the family, friends and companions of Erika Chico.”

Meanwhile, Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela said that 45 Panamanian cadets were present during the attack, with two injured.

Fanny Contreras, the Colombian armed forces’ health inspector, told local radio that the truck “entered [the school compound] suddenly, almost hitting the police, and then there was the explosion”.

The United States assistant secretary of state in charge of Latin America, Kimberly Breier, condemned the attack and said: “Our condolences and sympathies go to the victims and family members of those killed.”

The US embassy in Bogota offered its “help in investigating this reprehensible attack”.

Right-wing Duque has peddled a tough line against Marxist rebels and drug traffickers in the largest cocaine producer in the world.

Peace talks with ELN guerrillas – who in the past have claimed responsibility for bomb attacks on police – stalled before Duque replaced Juan Manuel Santos as president, and have not been restarted.

Duque has made several demands, including the release of all hostages, as prerequisites to kickstarting the peace process, but the ELN has dismissed those as unacceptable.

After the 2016 peace accord signed by Santos and FARC guerrillas, turning the former rebels into a political party, the ELN is considered the last active rebel group in a country that has suffered more than half a century of conflict.

A year ago, six police died and 40 were injured in an attack on a police station in the Caribbean city of Barranquilla that was claimed by the ELN.

In February 2017, the ELN claimed responsibility for an attack on a police patrol in the Macarena neighbourhood of Bogota that left one officer dead and several seriously wounded.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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