Colombia’s ELN rebels warn of ‘reprisals’ after commander killed

Colombia’s largest remaining armed group has warned of “reprisals” after a government bombing killed one of its top commanders this week, prompting experts to predict a rise in attacks.

National Liberation Army (ELN) commander Angel Padilla Romero, better known by the alias Fabian, died in a Cali hospital after being injured in a military bombing on Colombia’s west coast, the government announced on Tuesday.

The leftist group said in a statement on Thursday that they were “authorised” to “disproportionately use force and explosives” in response to the attack, which took place on the ELN’s Western Front in a dense jungle municipality in Choco province.

Bogota dubbed the killing one of the “most important operations against the ELN in recent years” and on Thursday right-wing President Ivan Duque said the country would not be intimidated by threats from armed groups.

“As the supreme commander of the armed forces … I want to tell you that we will never give in to any threat from armed groups. We are fighting them and we will continue to fight them with all our determination,” Duque said at an event in the coastal city of Cartagena.

The ELN statement did not mention any specific targets.

However, the group – estimated to have some 2,300 active fighters – has a record of mounting attacks in rural areas where it operates, mostly on government infrastructure, as well as one-off mass casualty bombings in the capital, Bogota. Civilians have been injured in past attacks, but most are aimed at security forces.

The ELN is the last active armed group operating in Colombia after a 2016 peace deal ended five decades of war between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) Marxist armed group and the government.

Dissident groups, however, are on the rise. Violence, killings and disappearances in the Andean nation have also spiked, according to a March report by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

An estimated 1,900 Colombian rebel fighters are currently operating from neighbouring Venezuela, the Reuters news agency also reported this week. Many FARC commanders and fighters did not agree with the peace agreement, and they formed dissident groups that continue to recruit and fight against the Colombian government.

“Obviously they’re a threat to the population, but they are a prominent threat in terms of national security itself.”

Palma said the ELN has the capacity to retaliate, as it has small urban networks in cities. The group had a period of growth about two years ago, he explained, and grew financially and in terms of the amount of territory it can cover.

“We have seen this kind of violence before … small bomb attacks to military or police installations in main cities,” he said.Kyle Johnson, founder and researcher at The Conflict Responses Foundation in Bogota, said the ELN Front in Choco likely does not have the capacity to do much in response to Fabian’s killing.Kyle Johnson, founder and researcher at The Conflict Responses Foundation in Bogota, said the ELN Front in Choco likely does not have the capacity to do much in response to Fabian’s killing.

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