Colombian ELN rebels behind car bomb that killed 21 says defense minister

BOGOTA: Colombia's ELN rebel group was responsible for the car bomb attack against a police academy that killed at least 21 and injured dozens, Defense Minister Guillermo Botero said on Friday, making unlikely any possibility of restarting government peace talks with the insurgent group.

In Thursday's attack, the government said, a car driven by ELN explosives expert Jose Aldemar Rojas broke through checkpoints onto the grounds of the General Santander School before it detonated, shattering windows of apartments nearby.

"A terrorist act by the ELN took those lives," Botero told reporters in Bogota.

The National Liberation Army (ELN), made up of some 2,000 fighters and considered a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union, began peace talks with the government of former President Juan Manuel Santos in February 2017 but they have been put on hold by President Ivan Duque until the ELN frees all hostages and stops attacks.

Rojas, known by his war alias El Mocho or Kiko, had lost his hand in bomb-making activity and traveled frequently across the border to Venezuela, Botero said.

The attack was planned over about 10 months and Rojas was killed in the blast, he said.

Duque called the explosion a "crazy terrorist act" against unarmed cadets.

"We will not rest until we capture and bring to justice the terrorists involved," Duque said late Thursday. "I tell the criminals that social repudiation awaits them, the rejection of all Colombians and the international community."

The vehicle, a gray Nissan Patrol SUV, was carrying 80 kilograms (176 lb) of the high explosive pentolite, which has been used in the past by Colombian guerrillas, Attorney General Nestoy Humberto Martinez said on Friday.

Car bombs were frequently used in Colombia during decades of civil war between the government and various leftist rebel groups, as well as in violence involving the Medellin drug cartel led by the late drug lord Pablo Escobar.

The worst of the war, which killed some 260,000 and left millions displaced, ended when the government reached a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016.

The last major attack was in January 2018 when the ELN, the biggest rebel group that remains active, detonated a bomb in the northern port city of Barranquilla, killing five police officers and injuring dozens.

The ELN, founded by radical Catholic priests has fought more than a dozen government’s since it formed in 1964.

ELN rebel Ricardo Andres Carvajal Salgar has been captured, Martinez also said.