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Colombia’s National Liberation Army Carries Out a Wave of Attacks

The country’s second largest rebel group also decreed a 72-hour prohibition of commercial activity in areas it controls. The show of force comes as Colombia’s largest guerrilla force, the FARC, prepares to sign peace with the government.

by Joe Parkin Daniels
Feb 15 2016, 11:45pm

Imagen por Christian Escobar Mora/EPA

Colombia's second largest rebel group is making a bid to remind the world that it remains active in a presumed attempt to influence potential peace talks.

Beginning at the weekend, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, imposed a 72-hour economic shutdown on areas where it has influence, and carried out a wave of small-scale attacks against military, police, and infrastructure targets across the country. During the attacks, a police officer was killed and several others were injured, including at least two civilians.

President Juan Manuel Santos told reporters that the rebels were breaking international humanitarian law with "a display of weakness." Colombian authorities also shut down the ELN's main Twitter account on Saturday, along with the account attached to the organization's radio station, RANPAL.

Related: Colombia Blames Twin Bombings in Bogota on Rebel Group ELN, Arrests 15

The ELN, meanwhile, released a communique on Monday listing things it said should make Colombians angry, ranging from falling oil prices to the government's response to the El Niño climactic phenomenon.

"Faced with the tyranny that governs us, the ELN is exercising the legitimate right to Rebellion," the group said. "At the same time as the media campaign to disarm the guerrillas in the name of peace intensifies, state forces are striking against the population that asks for peace with social justice."

The rebels have been in exploratory peace talks with the government since 2014, but these are looking less secure at the same time as the government and the country's biggest guerrilla group — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC — appear on the point of signing a full peace accord.

The ELN and the government looked like they were close to formalizing talks until a couple of months ago, when the rebels suddenly ramped up attacks against state forces, in what looked like a bid to strengthen their hand at the negotiating table.

The current actions follow on from this, although they are ostensibly in order to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of their charismatic co-founder, a priest called Camilo Torres, who died in the group's first ever combat operation.

Adam Isacson, from the Washington Office of Latin America, said the real motive behind the attacks is probably directly related to the talks.

Either, he said, they could be "a last show of strength to improve the ELN's position" before talks start. Alternatively, he added, it might indicate that "the exploratory talks have fallen apart and the ELN is trying to get the government back to the table by showing the damage that it is still capable of doing, and the variety of parts of the country where the group can still operate."

The leftist rebel group announced on Friday that it would be prohibiting commercial activity, including public transport, for 72 hours beginning on Sunday. 

The government called it an "armed strike." The rebel group have previously carried out regional shutdowns but a nationwide ban is unprecedented. Civilians in areas controlled by the ELN have previously complied with the rebels, out of fear of retaliation.

The attacks began on Saturday morning when the rebels hit a power station in Antioquia, to the northwest of the country. Clashes between police and rebel soldiers took place in Casanare, in the central eastern region, where, according to authorities, the rebels also burnt out a car. Grenades were thrown at a police checkpoint in Arauca, near the Venezuelan border, while an electrical tower was blown up in the neighboring department of Cesar, leaving several small towns without power.

Related: An Unexplained Wave of Low-Impact Bombings Is Troubling Colombia's Capital

Attacks continued on Sunday, with authorities reporting the ELN detonated a grenade in a suburb in Bogotá, the nation's capital. No injuries were reported. Attacks were also confirmed in the North of Santander department, and a road in the western coffee region, where a bus was burnt out.

Local newspapers also reported similar attacks in other parts of the country.

Despite the violence, only one death has been attributed to the attacks, a cop killed in Ocaña, in northeast Colombia, during a drive-by shooting that left another police officer injured along with two civilian bystanders.

The weekend's shutdown and attacks come at a time when international attention is fixed on the final stages of the peace process between the FARC and the government, with negotiators currently tackling the final point on their peace agenda, titled "End of Conflict."

While the ELN, like the FARC, is a leftist rebel group, the two groups have fought against each other and the government. They have both also battled state-aligned paramilitaries throughout Colombia's 51-year internal conflict. The violence has left at least 220,000 people dead and 6 million displaced since 1964, most of whom are civilians.

Related: This Weekend, Colombia Will Decide How to End 50 Years of Violence

Follow Joe Parkin Daniels on Twitter: @joeparkdan