BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s FARC rebels shot dead three police officers on Thursday and brought down an energy pylon, cutting off power to half a million people in the country’s south, the military said, as the Marxist group steps up attacks amid stumbling peace talks.
Members of the FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, opened fire on the three police officers patrolling a stretch of the southwestern Pan-American Highway on Thursday and detonated explosives a few kilometers away on the same road.
The 8,000-strong FARC lifted a unilateral ceasefire about three weeks ago and has since hit almost daily at roadways, power networks and crude oil trucks and pipelines, polluting water supplies in the rebels’ southwestern stronghold.
The insurgent group has been in talks with the government for the last 30 months, seeking to end a 51-year conflict that has killed almost a quarter of a million people. The negotiations have continued despite the intensified attacks.
Months of relative detente ended in April when the FARC killed 11 soldiers in Cauca province who were sheltering from the rain, essentially breaking a ceasefire it began in December. Government troops then killed 27 rebels, prompting the FARC to renew hostilities.
The talks have advanced despite a near-constant backdrop of fighting since they began. The five points on the agenda include victim reparations, agricultural reform, eliminating the cocaine trade, demobilization and rebel political participation.
The FARC, which began in 1964 as a peasant movement, wants President Juan Manuel Santos to agree to a bilateral ceasefire, and analysts reckon the latest attacks are aimed at angering Colombians so they pressure him to call a truce.
He has so far refused and has condemned the attacks as irrational and having no explanation. Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon has slammed FARC leaders as having the “mentality of idiots.”
Television networks have shown footage recorded on cellphones of oil tanker truck drivers being forced by the FARC to empty the thousands of barrels of crude they were carrying onto the highway. Nineteen trucks were forced to unload on Monday, then several more on Thursday.
Several thousand barrels of crude oil spilled into a river in southwest Colombia on Monday after the FARC bombed a pipeline owned by state-run oil company Ecopetrol. Its chief executive officer, Juan Carlos Echeverry, has called the damage an “environmental tragedy.”
Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Helen Murphy; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Girish Gupta and Phil Berlowitz