Colombia to use air bombing raids against crime gangs

Colombia's Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas (C) delivers a speech, next to Colombian armed forces chief General Juan Pablo Rodriguez (L) and director of national police General Rodolfo Palomino (R) during a news conference in Bogota, Colombia October 26, 2015. REUTERS/John Vizcaino

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s armed forces will launch air raids on crime gangs involved in drug trafficking and illegal mining, the defense minister said on Friday, as the government steps up its offensive against what it considers the biggest threat to national security.

President Juan Manuel Santos authorized bombing raids on the gangs, which formed after a 2006 peace accord with right-wing paramilitary fighters failed to absorb many into society. There are about 3,000 members spread across three groups earning millions of dollars from illegal drugs and mining.

“This will allow the application of the entire force of the state, without exception, against organized armed groups, against powerful mafias, against those that launch hostile actions against institutions and the population, against those that have camps, long-range weapons, and uniforms,” Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said during a military event.

The government was previously prevented from taking such action against crime gangs because it was not proven that they used automatic weapons.

Air raids have been the most powerful offensive against insurgent groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army, leading to the deaths of many of their most feared commanders.

Air attacks against the FARC are currently suspended while the government conducts talks with the rebel leadership to end five decades of war. More than 220,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since the conflict began.

Santos said earlier this week that the United States will provide intelligence support to help battle crime gangs.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Helen Murphy; Editing by Alistair Bell