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Colombia’s President Is Shot at in Helicopter but Survives Attack

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — President Iván Duque of Colombia said he was aboard a helicopter that was shot at late Friday afternoon, in an attack that left bullet holes in the aircraft.

None of the passengers, including several top ministers, were killed, Mr. Duque said in a video address just after the attack. He did not say whether anyone had been injured.

The authorities did not immediately say who they thought was responsible for the assault, which took place near the border with Venezuela.

Mr. Duque called the shooting “cowardly” and vowed to continue “the fight against narcotrafficking, against terrorism and against the organized crime groups that operate in the country.”

The Colombian government has fought left-wing guerrillas, drug cartels, paramilitary operations and other criminal elements for generations.

Despite a peace deal signed in 2016 by Mr. Duque’s predecessor and the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, violence continues in parts of the country, especially in rural areas.

The attack Friday took place as Mr. Duque was flying to the border city of Cúcuta from the town of Sardinata in the troubled region of Catatumbo, where the coca crops that are used to make cocaine flourish, as do the armed groups that control the drug trade. These groups include members of the FARC who did not sign the peace deal, as well as the National Liberation Army, known as the ELN.

Some of these armed groups have gained strength by hiding out in nearby Venezuela, where the government has sometimes been tolerant of their presence.

Earlier this month, a car bomb went off at a military base in Cúcuta, injuring 36 people, according to the defense ministry. The Colombian government has not named a suspect in that case.

The helicopter attack took place as Mr. Duque faces what several analysts have called the most difficult moment of his presidency.

One recent poll, conducted by the firm Datexco, put his favorability rating at 16 percent, the lowest since he took office in 2018.

Despite the peace deal, violence has risen in parts of the countryside during Mr. Duque’s tenure, and mass killings and assassinations of social leaders continue to be common.

Mr. Duque’s critics have said that he has not done enough to carry out the peace accord, in which the government promised to enact economic aid programs that would foster peace in rural areas hit hard by decades of conflict.

His government has said it is working to implement those programs. It has pointed out that the peace deal was an accord with just one group — the FARC — and that it had inherited conflicts with a complex mix of other violent actors.

The pandemic has presented Mr. Duque with additional challenges. In the last week, Colombia experienced the globe’s third-highest average number of daily Covid-19 deaths, behind only Brazil and India, according to a New York Times analysis, and protesters recently spent weeks in the streets expressing anger over growing poverty and inequality.

Dozens of people died in those protests, many at the hands of the national police.

It is not clear if the perpetrators of the helicopter attack knew that Mr. Duque was aboard the aircraft.

The president could use a moment in which Colombians rally around him, argued Sergio Guzmán of Colombia Risk Analysis, a local political risk consultancy.

“When there are events that threaten the office of the president,” he said, “there is a ‘rally round the flag’ effect that President Duque’s supporters have been calling for for a while.”

In the helicopter with Mr. Duque on Friday were his defense minister, Diego Molano; his interior minister, Daniel Palacios; and the governor of the department of Norte de Santander, Silvano Serrano.

“Our state is strong,” Mr. Duque said in the video address after the attack, “and Colombia is strong in the face of these threats.”

Sofía Villamil contributed reporting from Cali, Colombia.




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