Colombia: ELN ‘armed strike’ as talks break down

Colombia's ELN guerillas carried out a string of attacks in a new offensive aimed at shutting down the South American country, mostly targeting transportation infrastructure. According to authorities, roads were bombed in Norte de Santander and Cesar departments, and a bus and a truck were incinerated in Antioquia. Vehicles were also set on fire in Arauca, and two trucks torched in Cauca, although authorities could not immediately confirm that these attack was carried out by the ELN. The four-day "armed strike" was called Feb. 10, weeks after a ceasefire broke down and days after the government suspended peace talks with the ELN. (Colombia Reports, Feb. 12; EuroNews, Feb. 10)

The breakdown of the peace talks has also occasioned the latest inflammation of Colombia's ongoing tensions with Venezuela, as Bogotá's defense minister Luis Carlos Villegas charged migrants from the neighboring country with involvement in the ELN attacks. "The number of Venezuelans who've participated in actions with the ELN has been growing," Villegas said, adding that Venezuelan nationals weren't solely involved in "terrorist activity," but also "attacks against the Colombian population." (It is unclear exactly what the distinction is here.) He said he would meet with his Venezuelan counterpart Gen. Vladimir Padrino to discuss security at the border.

Villegas said intelligence agents found that a recent ELN attack in Barranquilla was planned in Venezuela. The Jan. 27 bomb attack on a police station killed five officers and injured another 40. It came as the city was preparing for its famous Carnival celebrations, which annually draw thousands from across Colombia. (Bogotá Post, Feb. 16)

An ELN commander identified as Rafael Antonio Botero Restrepo AKA "Tista" was arrested for ordering the Barranquilla attack. Restrepo is one of eight ELN leaders wanted on charges of forcibly recruiting minors into combat. (TeleSur, Feb. 15) Arrest warrants have also been issued for ELN commanders "Pablo Beltran" and "Antonio García"—who were the chief negotiators at the Quito talks, and are now accused of ordering the "armed strike." (Colombia Reports, Feb. 13)

The new tensions between the South American neighbors come just days after scenes of chaos at their shared border. Thousands of Venezuelans rushed to border crossings with Colombia after Bogotá announced a tightening of controls in response to the increasing flow of economic migrants. (BBC News, Feb. 10)

Venezuela's Prosecutor General Tarek William Saab responded to the move by accusing Colombia of preparing a military invasion. "They are planning military bombings, a military invasion, and the occupation of a peaceful country like Venezuela with fire and fury," Saab said during a visit to Anzoategui state. He added that an invasion "is something we will not allow…. We have the armed forces, the people, and the democratic institutions and we will not allow it to occur in the homeland of [liberator Simon] Bolívar,. We will fight and resist, we are not afraid." (Colombia Reports, Feb. 12)

Photo: Colombia Reports