Defence minister says shift in strategy aims to protect civilians, including children forced to join rebel groups.
Colombia’s new left-wing government has said it will suspend aerial bombings targeting armed groups, in an effort to minimise the deaths of civilians and children who have been forcibly recruited into the organisations.
Defence Minister Ivan Velasquez told reporters on Thursday that the move was a symbol of the government’s willingness to engage in possible talks with armed groups.
It marks a shift in Colombia’s strategy against leftist rebels and drug-trafficking gangs amid a recent uptick in violence, especially in remote parts of the country.
“The bombings must be suspended. We’re going to evaluate the specific moment in which an absolute guideline can be established, but that is the direction we want to take,” Velasquez said.
“Children forcibly recruited by illegal groups are victims of this violence,” he added. “Therefore no military action with respect to illegal armed organisations can endanger the lives of these victims.
“We have to privilege life over death and cannot carry out operations … that put at risk the lives of the civilian population.”
The bombing of rebel camps has been a contentious topic in Colombia, where a brutal civil conflict raged for nearly six decades and left more than 450,000 people dead.
In 2019, then-Defence Minister Guillermo Botero resigned after eight forcibly-recruited children aged 12 to 17 were killed in a military raid against dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group.
Two years later, a left-wing legislator claimed four children were killed in a bombing operation to take out a leader of the National Liberation Army (ELN).
Since President Gustavo Petro — an ex-rebel fighter himself — was elected in June, the new government has focused on changing the tactics used by the military, demanding that they show more respect for human rights and act in defence of peace.
Rebel groups have long recruited children to boost their ranks, particularly in areas with little state presence.
The Colombian government signed a peace deal with the FARC in 2016, but dissident members of the group rejected that agreement and refused to lay down their weapons.
Meanwhile, the ELN — the country’s largest remaining armed group — insisted on Twitter that its central command has enough authority over fractured fighting units to negotiate a genuine peace with the government.
Petro has said he intends to negotiate with rebels in a bid to bring an end to the conflict.
“Petro is motivated to implement his vision for ‘total peace,'” the Colombia Risk Analysis consulting firm wrote on Twitter on Thursday evening. “His demobilization experience along with strong pressures from his base will likely be a strong influence on his desire to achieve success in the peace process during his term.”