Car bomber kills 10 in Colombia police academy attack

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BOGOTA (Reuters) – A car bomb exploded at a police academy in Colombia’s capital Bogota on Thursday, killing at least 10 people and wounding over 50 in an attack that prompted fears of a return to the country’s violent past.

Authorities said the car broke through checkpoints into the grounds of the General Santander School and exploded, shattering windows of apartments nearby. It was the deadliest attack in Bogota since the government struck a 2016 peace deal with the Marxist FARC rebel group.

President Ivan Duque called the explosion a “crazy terrorist act” against unarmed cadets and said he had ordered police and the military to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice.

“Colombians have never yielded to terrorism, we have always defeated it. This will not be an exception,” he told a news conference at the school in the south of the city.

He said the vehicle, a gray Nissan Patrol SUV, was carrying 80 kilograms (176 lb) of the high explosive pentolite, which has been used in the past by Colombian guerrillas.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack and Humberto Martinez said investigators were searching for its “intellectual authors.”

The Defence Ministry said in a statement that 10 people were killed and 54 wounded. Nine of the deceased were cadets at the academy, police said.

A police helicopter hovered over the area and family members gathered, many crying as they sought information. Images on social media showed the remains of a vehicle in flames in the parking area, and emergency responders at the scene.

Car bombs were frequent in Colombia during decades of civil war between the state and various leftist rebel groups, as well as in violence involving the Medellin drug cartel led by dead drug lord Pablo Escobar.

The worst of the war, which killed some 260,000 and left millions displaced, ended when the government reached a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016.

The last major attack was in January 2018 when the biggest rebel group that remains active, the National Liberation Army (ELN), detonated a bomb in the northern port city of Barranquilla, killing five police officers and injuring dozens.

The ELN, made up of some 2,000 fighters and considered a terrorist organization by the United States, has been in talks with the government since February 2017 to end the conflict. Duque, who took office in August, has conditioned peace talks on the ELN suspending hostilities and releasing all hostages.

On Wednesday, the ELN said in a statement it had kidnapped three crewmen of a civil helicopter it “neutralized” last week. In response, Colombia’s High Peace Commissioner, Miguel Ceballos, said the ELN “was moving further and further away from the possibility of dialogue.”

There was no indication the ELN was behind the attack in Bogota or that the kidnapping was linked.

As violence has receded in recent years, Colombia has taken off as a tourist destination, with more than three million foreign visitors in 2017, up from one million in 2006.