Colombia: FARC declare ceasefire —amid fighting

Colombia's army accused the FARC on Dec. 19 of killing five soldiers only hours before confirming a unilateral and indefinite rebel ceasefire to start the next day. The combat took place in Santander de Quilichao, Cauca, where a local army patrol was ambushed by members of the FARC’s 6th Front and its Teofilo Forero elite unit. One more soldier is missing in action and may have been taken prisoner by the guerrillas. The same FARC unit had earlier that day blown up the Panamerican highway at Caldono, leaving a lane-wide crater. Additionally, presumed FARC guerillas left Valle del Cauca's Pacific port city of Buenaventura without electricity after blowing up a key transmission tower on Dec. 18.

Colombia's Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón immediately condemned the "vile assassination" of the soldiers. Speaking before a group of troops, the minister said, "it hurts me everytime they kill one of you boys, you are the ones constructing Colombia’s progress." President Juan Manuel Santos assumed a more conciliatory tone, saying, "This is the war I want to end." But the president refused to meet the FARC's conditions for a ceasefire, such foreign observers. According to Santos, the FARC's announced ceasefire was a "thorny rose" because of the imposed conditions. "So what we do is take off the thorns and keep the rose they sent us," he said. The FARC responded that the ceasefire would commence in spite of their conditions not being met. (Colombia Reports, Colombia Reports, Dec. 19)

Civil society push for peace
The ceasefire was announced following a push from representatives of civil society groups who travelled to Havana, Cuba, for the peace talks between the FARC and Colombian government. These included a delegation from women's groups, which issued a call for the rebels and government to instate a ceasefire by Christmas. Also on hand was a delegation of 12 war victims, who had lost family members or otherwise been affected by the war. This victims' group, the fifth such delegation to visit the Havana talks, issed a statement calling negotiations the "only exit" for Colombia. The victims, six men and six women, lost kin to attacks by the FARC, right-wing paramilitaries and government forces alike. (El Tiempo, Dec. 16; El Tiempo, Dec. 15; EFE, Dec. 15; EFE, Dec. 14)

A controversial presence among the victims' group was outspoken ex-senator Piedad Córdoba, who was briefly kidnapped by AUC paramilitary forces in 1999. Córdoba was removed from the Senate and barred from public office by Colombia's Prosecutor General over accusations she had overstepped legal boundaries in her contacts with the FARC while negotiating the release of hostages in 2010. (El Tiempo, Colombia Reports, Dec. 15)

FARC apologize for massacre
The FARC on Dec. 19 formally recognized its responsibility for a 2002 massacre and asked forgiveness from the families of at least 79 killed who died in the attack. At a press conference in Havana, FARC negotiator Pablo Catatumbo expressed his group's regret over the mass killing at Bojaya, a jungle village in Chocó, when a guerilla improvised bomb killed at least 79 of approximately 300 civilians who were taking shelter in a church from combat between the FARC and AUC. The statement was made in the presence of victim representatives from Bojaya, a village that was virtually abandoned after the traumatic event. (Colombia Reports, Dec. 19)

ELN abduct mayor
As the FARC ceasefire was announced, guerillas from Colombia’s second rebel group, the ELN, abducted the mayor of Alto Baudo, Chocó. Fredys Palacios was seized Dec. 16 while traveling by boat on a local river together with 11 adults and five children. The other passengers were not taken. Chocó government secretary Calimeño Mena told the press that Palacios had been repeatedly threatened. "He even requested us to transfer his office to another municipality or the capital of Choco," the official told Medellin radio station W, adding that several other Chocó mayors have received such threats. Mena charges that the National Protection Unit, the state organism in charge of the personal security of people at risk, "has ignored the situation of vulnerability of public officials and mayors" in remote rural areas. Local residents told Bogotá's El Tiempo that Alto Baudo is on a stategic corridor for drug trafficking, and the ELN is in a violent contest with the Rastrojos paramilitary group for control of the area. (Colombia Reports, Dec. 18; El Tiempo, Dec. 17)