In Colombia Shaken by bombing, govt pushes on with peace drive

A deadly mall bombing and the kidnapping of foreign journalists have laid bare the dangers facing Colombia even as its biggest rebel group Tuesday launched the final phase of its disarmament.

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Police patrol a Bogota mall where a bomb exploded, killing three women -- a reminder of the long-running conflict with FARC rebels, who are on the verge of disarming play

Police patrol a Bogota mall where a bomb exploded, killing three women -- a reminder of the long-running conflict with FARC rebels, who are on the verge of disarming

(AFP)
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A deadly mall bombing and the kidnapping of foreign journalists have laid bare the dangers facing Colombia even as its biggest rebel group Tuesday launched the final phase of its disarmament.

The demobilization of the leftist FARC under a peace accord with the government and peace talks with the last active rebel force, the ELN, are meant to end more than half a century of violence.

But just as the FARC entered the final stretch in its long march to peace, reminders of the old conflict erupted in recent days, raising concerns for the contested peace drive.

Three women were killed and nine people injured in Saturday night's bombing at a crowded shopping center in Bogota.

Authorities and rebel leaders condemned it as a bid to disrupt the peace process.

Analyst Beatriz Rettberg of the University of the Andes cited the bombing and ongoing violence involving drug gangs as lingering "difficulties" for the peace drive.

"There is clear and strong opposition to the peace process and the accord," she said.

Opposition to peace deal

The accord, first signed in November, was initially narrowly rejected by Colombians in a referendum before being redrafted and pushed through congress.

Critics such as conservative political leader Alvaro Uribe said it was too lenient on FARC members, some of whom will get amnesties or reduced sentences for crimes committed during the conflict.

"A badly-done accord just generates more violence," said Ernesto Macias, a senator from Uribe's Democratic Center party.

"It is possible that there are violent groups who want to have the same impunity and benefits as the people in that bad example," he said, referring to the FARC members who are spared jail under the peace accord.

Meanwhile, there are still armed groups with a stake in the crisis. Officials say remnants of right-wing paramilitaries are battling the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) in the jungle for control of the drugs trade.

UN 'optimistic'

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, touring a Bogota mall after a deadly explosion, has pledged to pursue peace with the country's rebel groups no matter what a shopping center, following an explosion which, according to authorities, left three dead and eleven injured, in Bogota, Colombia, on June 17, 2017. Police said an explosion tore through a women's restroom area of the mall, crowded with shoppers ahead of Father's Day, in an upscale area of the Colombian capital that is popular with foreign nationals. play

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, touring a Bogota mall after a deadly explosion, has pledged to pursue peace with the country's rebel groups no matter what a shopping center, following an explosion which, according to authorities, left three dead and eleven injured, in Bogota, Colombia, on June 17, 2017. Police said an explosion tore through a women's restroom area of the mall, crowded with shoppers ahead of Father's Day, in an upscale area of the Colombian capital that is popular with foreign nationals.

(AFP)

President Juan Manuel Santos, who won a Nobel Peace Prize last year for his efforts, vowed Saturday's attack would not disrupt the peace process.

"We will not let what has been achieved up to now be slowed down by a few extremists, cowards or people who do not want the Colombian people to be reconciled," he said.

The FARC was scheduled on Tuesday to formally begin the final phase of its disarmament under UN supervision.

It is due within a week to hand over the last remaining weapons in its hands -- some 40 percent of the total.

Santos said on Monday that there would be a final ceremony on June 27 to seal that handover.

After that, the United Nations will retrieve the last of the FARC's weapons, which are hidden in hundreds of remote caches -- a process scheduled to be completed by September 1.

"The parties have faced challenges in the implementation of the historic peace agreement signed last year," said Jeffrey Feltman, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, who met with Santos on Monday.

"But you have overcome those challenges and the implementation is ongoing," he added. "There is very good reason to be optimistic about this process."

Journalists kidnapped

Colombia's civil conflict erupted in 1964 over land rights. It drew in leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups and state forces.

It has left 260,000 people confirmed dead, more than 60,000 missing and seven million displaced.

The ELN has started talks with the government this year, though it has been blamed for ongoing confrontations with state forces.

On Monday, authorities said ELN members had kidnapped two Dutch journalists in the north.

With so many sides to the conflict, "we have had no single, simultaneous peace accord covering all the guerrillas and all the paramilitaries," said analyst Alvaro Villarraga, director of Colombia's Historical Memory Center.

"We have peace in installments."

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