Death toll in Colombia bombing rises to 21 as threats linger

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BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) – Colombian authorities said Friday that a one-armed explosives expert belonging to the country’s last remaining rebel group carried out a car bombing against a police academy that left 21 dead, raising tough questions about lingering security threats in the wake of a peace deal with FARC rebels.

Defense Minister Guillermo Botero said at a press conference that the man who carried out Thursday’s brazen attack, Jose Aldemar Rojas, was a member of the National Liberation Army, or 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.

Overnight, the death toll from the Thursday morning bombing more than doubled to 21, making it the deadliest attack in Colombia in over a decade.

It proved especially unsettling because the target, the General Santander school, is one of the most protected installations in the capital.

President Ivan Duque, visiting the academy in the aftermath, was careful not to attribute blame to any armed group even while condemning what he called a “miserable” terrorist act that recalled some of the bloodiest chapters of Colombia’s recent past.

“The terrorists are looking to intimidate us as a society and attack the state,” Duque said in a televised address in which he declared three days of mourning. “Colombia will demonstrate that it is a strong state, united and won’t break in the face of the dementia of these aggressions.”

Among those killed was a top-of-class female cadet from Ecuador, while two visiting students from Panama were among those injured.

With the help of security cameras, authorities were quick to identify Rojas as a 56-year-old man with no criminal record named. He died in the attack.

Nestor Martinez said Rojas drove a 1993 Nissan pick-up loaded with 80 kilograms (175 pounds) of pentolite explosive past a security checkpoint and onto the school’s leafy campus, where a start-of-the-year honor ceremony had just finished.

Videos shot on cellphones show panicked officers hauling injured colleagues on stretchers with debris and body parts strewn in front the skeletal steel remains of the still-burning truck.

Little is known about Rojas. Records show he bought the car last year from another person who had been charged in the past for terrorism and rebellion. The car was inspected six months ago in the eastern city of Arauca, near the border with Venezuela.

The same volatile area is a stronghold of the ELN, the country’s last remaining rebel group following a 2016 accord between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia that saw some 7,000 rebels disarm.

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 around 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.

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 Center.

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 there was an outpouring of solidarity.

Dozens of residents stood in line at four collection points throughout the city to donate blood to treat the more than 70 victims.

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.”

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AP writers Christine Armario and Cesar Garcia contributed to this report.

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This story has been corrected to show that the ELN is believed to have around 1,500 fighters, not 2,000.

Family members of victims of a bombing cry outside the entrance to the General Santander police academy where the bombing took place in Bogota, Colombia, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/John Wilson Vizcaino)
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