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Is Peace At Risk After Latest Attack on Soldiers in Colombia?

The Tuesday night attack in Cauca state left 11 servicemen dead, renewing fears among optimistic Colombians that an end to five decades of internal war is farther than hoped.

by Juan David Ortiz and Joe Parkin Daniels
Apr 16 2015, 6:01pm

Photo by Fernando Vergara/AP

It doesn't matter whether it was an ambush or a defensive move, said Pastor Alape, nom de guerre of a member of the FARC rebel army delegation to ongoing peace talks aimed at ending Colombia's war.

"Ambush, counter ambush, assault, or whatever it was, what matters is that Colombians lost their lives," Alape told reporters on Wednesday in Havana, where the peace negotiations are taking place.

It was the FARC's first public statements on the killing of eleven soldiers late Tuesday, in the Buenos Aires region of the southwestern state of Cauca.

"This must be stopped," Alape said. "Because these operations against the guerrilla are unjustified, especially now that the group has called for a truce."

With this, Alape managed to elude confirming or denying the government's version of the events, which state that the servicemen were attacked with gunfire and explosives by a FARC unit called resistant to embracing the talks.

The attack was one of the deadliest against Colombia's armed forces in recent years, and posed a setback to the negotiations that are strongly backed by President Juan Manuel Santos.

In Cali, President Santos, his defense minister Juan Carlos Pinzón, and top military leaders emerged from a security council meeting with word that airstrikes against the FARC would be resumed.

Army strikes had been suspended a month ago as a conciliatory measure in response to the guerrilla's unilateral ceasefire in December. Santos extended the suspension of strikes on the FARC just last week.

"We will continue performing our constitutional duty through operations of territorial control in order to guarantee the security and peace of Colombia's southwest population," the army said in a statement.

Related: US Army Will Investigate Allegations of Sexual Assault by Soldiers and Contractors in Colombia.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos visited soldiers injured in the Cauca attack on Wednesday in Cali. (Photo via Presidencia de Colombia)

The death of the two officers and nine soldiers in Cauca came as the talks seemed to reach a point of no return for both sides. The FARC ceasefire encouraged the Colombian government to respond equally, and the government and the guerrilla only recently announced a joint plan to remove landmines from Colombia's countryside.

On Wednesday, before traveling to Cauca, Santos said the peace talks would not be suspended. "This is precisely the war that we want to end," the president said in Cali.

But the attack seemed to further threaten the delicate optimism among Colombians that the negotiations could be successful. The current conflict began in 1964 and has left approximately 220,000 people dead overall — a majority of them civilians — while millions have been displaced.

Colombians are also concerned the violence could continue after a peace deal is reached with the FARC, as they are not the only combatants in the conflict.

'I've never witnessed peace. There's always been war.'

A recent Gallup poll said 66 percent of Colombians expect political violence to continue even if a peace deal with the FARC is reached. While a majority of Colombians now support the talks, the potential of amnesty for rebels for atrocities blamed on them sparked protests against the negotiations late last year.

VICE News attended a massive demonstration held in Bogota on April 9, a day commemorating the victims of the conflict, to talk to attendees about what a deal signed in Havana could mean for peace at home.

"It's really hard because we have always lived in the context of war. Violence is not a matter of a year or two, but sixty years of war and violence," said Carmen Jiménez, a volunteer at a Bogotá soup kitchen for displaced victims of the conflict.

Among those who visit the kitchen are homeless, the disabled, and victims of the war, Jiménez said. If a deal is signed, she said she doesn't predict too much change to her work.

"They'll still come. It's food for people who don't have anything to eat."

Related: Thousands of Colombians Rally Against Amnesty for FARC Guerrilla Fighters.

Demonstrators stream through downtown Bogotá on April 9 in memory of the victims of the conflict. (Photo by Fernando Vergara/AP)

According to the army, two soldiers suffered serious injuries on Tuesday, six more were left with minor injuries, and 11 were affected by the explosions' blast waves. All of them were members of the Task Force Apollo, a group created in 2011 to fight the FARC in Cauca.

Tuesday's incident was preceded by the death of two soldiers on Sunday, during combat against the 18th Front of the FARC in Ituango, in northern Antioquia. Army chief Gen. Jaime Lasprilla said that the guerrilla used civilians as human shields, shooting from inside the homes of farmers who live in the area.

"As delegates, we don't have the details about what happened in Ituango, but you can be sure that the FARC would never use human shields," FARC negotiator Jesús Santrich responded in Havana.

Mario Aguilera, a sociologist and historian who is an expert on the FARC, does not agree with theories that the recent attacks could be blamed on the opposition to the peace negotiations among members of the Cauca front of the guerrilla.

"I don't think that the Cauca division sees the peace agreement in a different way than the rest of the group. To say that some fronts agree with the process and others don't is a misconception," Aguilera said.

As he sees it, the political and military structure of the FARC is "vertical, unitary, and united."

The Miller Perdomo column of the FARC, a unit that Colombia's army blamed for the deaths of the soldiers in Cauca, is one of the nine mobile columns of the Western Block of the guerrilla. They operate under the orders of Jorge Torres Victoria, also known as Pablo Catacumbo, a member of the FARC's delegation in Havana.

Alfredo Escorcia, 66, attended last Thursday's rally and concert in Bogotá for the victims of the violence. A former fisherman, he was forced to flee his coastal home near the city of Barranquilla when drug traffickers took control of the area more than thirty years ago.

"I've never witnessed peace. There's always been war. We've been displaced from the river, from fishing, [the combatants] haven't given us a chance," Escorcia told VICE News.

Currently jobless, Escorcia relies on Jiménez's soup kitchen to feed himself.

"Nobody knows what is going to be different, but whatever they sign on paper, whether there's going to be peace or more war, there needs to be work," he said. "Peace with hunger won't last."

Related: Watch 'The Special Ops Olympics - War Games.'

A version of this story originally appeared at VICE Colombia. Follow @vicenews on Twitter for the latest news on Colombia's peace talks.

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