BOGOTA (Reuters) - Ten soldiers were killed in southwestern Colombia on Wednesday after being shot at and attacked with grenades by FARC rebels, the army said, raising questions over whether the leftist group had broken a unilateral ceasefire it declared four months ago.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have been in peace negotiations with the government for more than two years and declared a ceasefire in December as talks advanced, saying they would only open fire if attacked.
The army "reproaches this act, whose authors were the narco-terrorists of the fourth commission of the Miller Perdomo mobile column of the FARC," General Mario Valencia told journalists, referring to the drug trafficking activity that funds the group.
He said one FARC member had also been killed in the attack which took place as the army carried out "territorial control operations" to protect civilians in the area. At least nine government troops were also injured.
President Juan Manuel Santos said on Twitter he would travel on Wednesday to Cauca province where the attack took place. Just days ago, he extended a halt to air raids on FARC jungle hide-outs, a gesture aimed at de-escalating the 50-year-old war.
"I am with the military leadership consulting about the events," he said. "This is exactly the war that we want to end."
The attack is unlikely to derail the peace negotiations that have taken place in Cuba since late 2012 even while battlefield combat continued at home. But it is the first major clash blamed on the FARC since their ceasefire declaration.
FARC negotiator Felix Antonio Munoz, known as Pastor Alape, did not confirm whether the FARC was involved but he appeared to blame the government for the clashes.
The confrontation "seems to be caused by the incoherence on the part of the government - ordering military operations against a rebel force in ceasefire," he told reporters in Havana, reiterating the FARC's demand for a bilateral ceasefire.
Despite halting air raids against the FARC, Santos has refused to call a complete end to attacks against the rebels despite their unilateral ceasefire, reiterating the government's constitutional duty to protect civilians.
The FARC exploited a ceasefire period during a previous peace process more than a decade ago to regroup and build up military strength.
Santos also has to tread a fine line between pursuing peace while trying to avoid accusations that he is capitulating to a group Western governments deem terrorists.
Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta in Havana; Writing by Peter Murphy; Editing by W Simon and Ted Botha