Colombia's Marxist FARC rebels suspended a unilateral cease-fire after government troops killed 26 of its fighters, the guerrilla group said Friday.
"We deplore the attack by the air force, army and police executed in the early hours of Thursday morning," the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said in a statement. “We feel the same pain for the death of guerrillas and soldiers alike, sons of the same country and originating from poor families. We have to stop the bloodshed.”
Late last year, FARC declared a one-sided cease-fire, but President Juan Manuel Santos ordered a resumption of military strikes after a rebel attack last month that killed 10 government troops.
"It is the first major blow against FARC since President Santos ordered the resumption of airstrikes against the guerrillas on April 15," a Defense Ministry official said about the strike, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Thursday’s airstrike raises doubts about peace talks that resumed that day between FARC and the Santos government. The president campaigned for his second term on the promise of securing peace with the rebels. The stop-start negotiations, which have been hosted by Cuba for over two years, are aimed at ending the country's five-decade-long civil conflict, which has killed more than 200,000 people.
Santos has declined to end fighting until there is a final peace agreement, though he had suspended air raids after rebel attacks ceased.
The attack Thursday involved military and police and took place in Guapi in the Cauca region of western Colombia, a FARC stronghold and an area popular with drug gangs. FARC was founded in 1964 and has about 8,000 fighters.
The army targeted a unit of the rebels that it blames for an attack in November on Gorgona Island that killed one of its lieutenants, the source said.
Earlier in the week, Santos replaced his defense minister, Juan Carlos Pinzón, a man some analysts said clashed with the president’s goal of hammering out a peace deal with FARC by 2018. The current ambassador to the United States, Luis Carlos Villegas, was named as Pinzón's replacement.
Eleven days of talks in Havana are scheduled, set to include discussions on compensation for victims of the conflict, but the airstrike raises questions about the future of peace talks and increased violence.
"This is a signal problem ... at a time when more progress is expected in de-escalation," said Christian Voelkel, a conflict resolution expert at the International Crisis Group.
But he also said he thought it was unlikely the rebels would resume fighting. "The political costs would be too high, and no party has an interest in jeopardizing the process," he said.
The negotiations with the country's largest rebel group have reached deals on political participation, illegal drugs and disarmament, among other issues.
Al Jazeera and wire services