Colombia offers $800,000 reward in attack on leader's copter

The Colombian government said Saturday it is offering a reward of nearly $800,000 for information leading to the capture of those behind an attack Friday on a helicopter carrying President Ivan Duque near the Venezuela border.

“A reward of up to 3 billion pesos is being offered” for information leading to “those responsible for this terrorist attack,” Defense Minister Diego Molano said in a video posted to social media from the northern city of Cucuta. 

The president’s helicopter was approaching the Cucuta airport on a flight from Sardinata when several shots — apparently from rifles — were fired at it.

Duque was flying with Molano, Interior Minister Daniel Palacios and other officials at the time.

No one on board was injured, but photos released by the president’s office showed the tail and main blade had been hit.

General Jorge Vargas, the national police chief, said a search team sent to a nearby Cucuta neighborhood had found two rifles: an AK-47, whose owner was not yet known, and a 7.62-caliber rifle “bearing the mark of the Venezuelan armed forces.” 

Duque has repeatedly accused Venezuela’s socialist leader, Nicolas Maduro, of giving refuge to Colombian dissidents and armed rebel fighters. Bogota and Caracas broke off diplomatic relations shortly after Duque, a conservative, came to power in 2018.

– ‘Our state is strong’ –

Earlier Friday, Duque had attended an event in the Catatumbo region, one of the main coca-growing areas in a country that is the world’s leading cocaine exporter. 

Holdouts from the disbanded FARC rebel group, an active guerrilla group called the National Liberation Army (ELN), and other armed bands have been fighting over drug trafficking revenues along the long and porous border with Venezuela.

“We are not frightened by violence or acts of terrorism,” Duque said after the attack on his chopper. “Our state is strong.”

The attack Friday has been condemned by the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and several Latin American countries. 

Colombia has been experiencing some of its worst violence in years, particularly in rural areas including the border zone. 

There have been numerous mass killings, blamed by the government on armed narco-traffickers. 

On June 16, a car bomb exploded inside a military installation in Cucuta, wounding 36 people, at a time when US soldiers were there advising their Colombian counterparts on the drugs fight.

The government blamed the ELN, with which it ended peace negotiations in 2019.

Those talks started after the government concluded a historic peace accord in 2016 with the much bigger FARC to end decades of civil war.

The resurgent violence comes on top of the country’s struggle against the coronavirus pandemic, leaving Duque with sinking approval numbers. 

The last attack against a president in Colombia was a bombing near the airport in the southwest city of Neiva that targeted then leader Alvaro Uribe in 2003.

The bomb exploded before his arrival, but killed 15 people and wounded 66. 

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