Six Colombian soldiers have been killed in fighting with rebel dissidents in the violence-plagued southwestern region of Cauca, the country’s army said, as the government seeks to end a decades-long conflict.
Colombia’s military said on Tuesday that the deaths occurred in a clash with dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a left-wing rebel group that signed a peace agreement with the government in 2016.
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President Gustavo Petro, who is pursuing a “total peace” plan with the South American country’s remaining armed groups, said the soldiers killed were aged 18 to 20. They faced grenades, improvised explosive devices and gunfire in the attack, according to the army.
“It was an infiltration operation” by one of the main dissident factions, Petro said.
Three military personnel also were killed by FARC dissidents over the weekend in the same area, where armed groups are involved in drug trafficking and other illicit activities.
The dissidents, who rejected the peace deal between FARC and the government, said in September that they were willing to negotiate laying down their weapons.
Since Petro took office in August as Colombia’s first left-wing president, he and his aides have met with leaders of the two main factions of FARC dissidents with an eye to setting up peace talks. The holdout fighters total about 5,200, according to the Indepaz think tank.
“So far, we have only talked about the possibility [of a ceasefire], nothing more,” Petro said on Tuesday, following a meeting with high-ranking members of Colombia’s security forces.
Violence has surged in Colombia in recent years, especially in parts of the country that lie outside government control.
Citing figures from the United Nations humanitarian affairs office (UN-OCHA), the Norwegian Refugee Council said last month that more than 2.6 million people had their movements restricted so far this year due to continuing violence across the country.
As part of Petro’s peace plan, Colombia recently restarted negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country’s largest remaining rebel group.
At the weekend, the president announced that the talks, held in neighbouring Venezuela, had achieved a deal to allow the Embera Indigenous people to return to their home territories.
Members of the community had fled violence between drug gangs, outlawed right-wing armed groups and the ELN. Many have sought shelter in the capital, Bogota, where they organised protests to demand protection, housing and jobs.
On Wednesday, Petro’s government also will begin peacemaking efforts in Buenaventura, a Pacific port city, where about 1,600 armed youths are believed to be involved in drug trafficking.