BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) – Leftist rebels on Monday ambushed election workers transporting ballots from an indigenous reservation in Colombia's Andean highlands, killing 12 security forces members who were protecting the group.
Authorities attributed the attack to the National Liberation Army, or ELN, Colombia's second-biggest rebel group. The poll workers were transporting to the capital city for counting about 130 ballots cast at the remote U'wa reservation during Sunday's elections for governors, mayors and other local officials.
Of those killed early Monday, 11 belonged to the army while the other was a police officer. Three more soldiers were wounded and six people remain missing, including two poll workers and an indigenous guide, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said.
"They were safeguarding the political liberty of our U'wa brothers," Villegas said in a press conference, adding that the military's top command had traveled to the area to oversee efforts to locate those still missing as well as the attackers.
President Juan Manuel Santos expressed his condolences, saying the attack marred what had otherwise been the safest elections Colombia has held in decades, with a 60 percent reduction in violence compared with the previous vote in 2011.
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He also chastised the ELN, which has been holding exploratory peace talks with government for more than a year and were widely expected to join the more powerful Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in initiating formal negotiations aimed at ending a half century of bloodshed.
"This is an event that demonstrates the ELN haven't understood that it's time for peace, not for war," said Santos, adding that he ordered the military to redouble a military offensive against the ELN's remaining 1,500 fighters, most of whom are concentrated in eastern Colombia, near where the attack took place. "If the ELN thinks that these acts they are going to gain political space or strengthen their position before an eventual negotiations they are completely wrong."
A proud nation of some 7,000 people, the U'wa are known for fiercely defending their ancestral homeland in the 1990s from drilling by Occidental Petroleum.
Bladimir Moreno, a tribal leader and president of a group representing the U'wa, told the Associated Press that he plans to travel to the remote area on the edge of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy national park to assist authorities with an impartial probe. He said the isolated reservation that's home to some 300 people is a two-day trek to the nearest town and the community's sole telephone wasn't working in the immediate aftermath of the attack.
The ELN has yet to take credit for the attack, and Villegas didn't provide details about guerrilla casualties or how the ambush unfolded.