Colombia reactivates arrest orders for rebel leaders after bombing kills 21

Colombian President Ivan Duque reactivated arrest orders against the leaders of the county's last remaining rebel group after it was blamed for carrying out a car bombing on a police academy that left 21 dead.

Jose Aldemar Roja, a member of ELN, accused in deadly Bogota attack

Following Thursday's deadly bombing, Colombian President Ivan Duque asked Cuba to hand over the 10 ELN peace negotiators who have been living on the island as part of a peace process. (Colombian Presidency/Handout via Reuters)

Colombian President Ivan Duque reactivated arrest orders against the leaders of the county's last remaining rebel group after it was blamed for carrying out a car bombing on a police academy that left 21 dead.

In a televised address Friday night, Duque asked Cuba to hand over the 10 peace negotiators of the National Liberation Army, or ELN, who have been living on the communist-run island as part of a peace process.

"It's clear to all of Colombia that the ELN has no true desire for peace," Duque said, citing a long list of kidnappings and attacks attributed to the guerrillas since peace talks began in 2017.

Talks with the group have been suspended for months but Duque had allowed the rebel leaders to remain in Cuba in the hopes the group would meet his demands for talks to resume.

"We would like to thank the Cuban government for the solidarity it expressed yesterday and today, and we ask that it capture the terrorists who are inside its territory and hand them over to Colombian police," he said, adding that no ideology could justify the cruelty of Thursday's attack.

Defence Minister Guillermo Botero said at an earlier press conference that the one-armed explosives expert who carried out Thursday's attack, Jose Aldemar Rojas, was a member of the ELN, and known by his alias Mocho Kiko.

Even though Rojas had no criminal record, intelligence reports and testimony in legal cases indicate Rojas had lost his arm manipulating explosives during his long career in the ELN rebel cell near the border with Venezuela, chief prosecutor Nestor Martinez said.

It proved especially unsettling because the target, the General Santander school, is one of the most protected installations in the capital, and raised tough questions about lingering security threats following a peace deal with FARC rebels.

A candlelight vigil to honour victims of the blast was held Thursday night. (Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters)

The ELN has been stepping up its attacks on police targets and oil infrastructure amid a standoff with the conservative Duque government over stalled peace talks. A year ago, the group claimed responsibility for the bombing of a police station in the coastal city of Barranquilla that left five officers dead.

But until now, the Cuban-inspired group, which is believed to have some 1,500 guerrilla fighters, has never been capable or much interested in carrying out such a high-profile act of violence. Thursday's attack was the deadliest since a 2003 car bombing against the elite Bogota social club El Nogal that left 36 dead, an incident that hardened Colombians' resolve against the FARC.

Timing of attack means 'maximum impact'

Duque has demanded the ELN cease all attacks and kidnappings as a condition for restarting the talks and has condemned Venezuela and Cuba for allegedly providing a safe haven for rebel leaders even as their troops continue to sow violence in Colombia.

For decades, residents of Bogota lived in fear of being caught in a bombing by leftist rebels or Pablo Escobar's Medellin drug cartel.

But as Colombia's conflict has wound down, attacks have fallen to historically low levels and residents in turn have lowered their guard, something that magnified the shock at Thursday's carnage.

"This is the maximum impact any terrorist act could have," said Jorge Restrepo, director of the Conflict Analysis Resource Centre.

Restrepo said he expects the attack to be a defining moment for Duque, who was elected last year on a law and order platform highly critical of his predecessor's peacemaking but since taking office has taken a more moderate stance.

Amid the tragedy, dozens of residents stood in line at four collection points throughout the city to donate blood to treat the more than 70 victims. Others gathered at a vigil Thursday night near the site of the blast.

Lorena Mora, 25, said she spent two anguishing hours trying to find out what happened to her brother, who entered the police school seven months ago. She eventually found him at the police hospital where most of the injured officers were transported. She said he was still stunned but otherwise well, except for a sprained knee.

"When I managed to get inside and see him," she said, "I felt instant peace."