Newspaper article International New York Times

Killings of Colombian Soldiers Strain Unity over Land Mines

Newspaper article International New York Times

Killings of Colombian Soldiers Strain Unity over Land Mines

Article excerpt

Negotiations between the state and the FARC, the largest rebel group, were hampered last week when 11 soldiers and a rebel were killed in a confrontation.

Luvin Mejia kneels on the ground, wearing a heavy Kevlar vest and pants, a thick clear plastic shield over his face.

It can take him an hour to move forward a single foot as he delicately clears brush from a long-abandoned mountain trail and passes a metal detector over each spot, the device's high-pitched whine mixing with the whir of insects.

Mr. Mejia is part of an army battalion that searches for land mines in areas once contested by guerrilla fighters in Colombia, a country with one of the highest numbers of land mine victims in the world.

The painstakingly slow work was promised a much-needed boost last month when the government and the country's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, agreed to start working together to find and destroy land mines laid by the guerrillas.

But the two sides have been negotiating a peace deal for over two years, and their ability to trust each other and work together was thrown into new doubt last week when 11 army soldiers and at least one rebel fighter were killed in a confrontation that President Juan Manuel Santos condemned as a violation of a rebel pledge in December not to attack government forces.

The military said the FARC attacked the soldiers while they were taking cover from a rainstorm in a remote hamlet. Calling the skirmish premeditated, Mr. Santos announced that the rebels involved in it would be hunted down, and he told the military that it could resume bombing raids on FARC encampments, lifting a ban he had imposed a month earlier with the goal of speeding up the peace talks.

On Thursday, a FARC representative in Havana, where the talks are being held, said the confrontation was the fault of the Colombian military for what he called a siege of guerrilla forces. In a video posted on a FARC website, the representative, Jorge Torres, who uses the alias Pablo Catatumbo, denied that the skirmish was "a premeditated action ordered from Havana," but he did not directly address the charge that the rebels attacked the troops.

The combat punctured a sense of optimism that had been growing around the talks in recent months, during which the two sides took important steps, including the FARC's cease-fire pledge and Mr. Santos's halting of aerial bombings, to de-escalate a conflict that has lasted more than 50 years.

The agreement to work together on mine removal was hailed as a crucial advance, offering the first prospect of tangible results from the lengthy negotiations.

"The peace process was in Havana, with declarations and lots of documents and speeches," said Alvaro Jimenez, national coordinator of the Colombian Campaign to Ban Land Mines. "But this is a way for it to become concrete and for the peace process to land here at home."

Mr. Jimenez said that with the death of the soldiers last week, the process had entered "a very fragile time" and that "the risk is that there is an exacerbation of hatred and the dialogue is set back or slows down." He worried that in such a case, the joint mine removal work could be put off.

A person close to the talks in Havana said, however, that military officers and FARC representatives working on the land mine project had met on Wednesday, the same day that news broke of the fatal skirmish, and again on Thursday. …

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