BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s FARC rebels scorned the “happy laughter” of their foes and rejected a plea to demobilize after the killing of their leader Alfonso Cano gave President Juan Manuel Santos his biggest military victory.
Many Colombians hoped the death of the 63-year-old Marxist commander in a raid on his jungle hideout on Friday might would herald the beginning of the end of nearly five decades of civil war that have wracked the Andean nation.
Santos specifically appealed for them to lay down arms.
But no one expected the drug trade-funded group to give up quickly, and instead they vowed to carry on their fight.
“This will not be the first time the oppressed and exploited in Colombia are mourning one of their greatest leaders,” the FARC said late on Saturday in a statement on the www.anncol.info website, which often carries their messages.
“Neither is it the first time they will replace them, with the courage and absolute conviction in victory. Peace in Colombia will not come from guerrilla demobilization but from the definitive abolition of the causes of the uprising.”
Starting as a Marxist-inspired peasant uprising seeking an end to sharp wealth inequality, the FARC has come to rely increasingly on the cocaine trade for financing Latin America’s longest insurgency.
Tens of thousands of Colombians have died, although government military offensives since 2002, backed by U.S. funding and expertise, have weakened the rebels considerably.
The killing of Cano, who had a $3.7 million bounty on his head, was expected to further damage their ability to carry out the high-profile bombings, ambushes and kidnappings that at one time made Colombia a byword for violence and bloodshed.
While Cano, a former student activist, was still supported in some extreme left-wing circles and universities, most Colombians despised him and cheered his demise.
There is also, however, plenty of disquiet with the government over the often murderous activities of right-wing paramilitaries, the lack of attention to an enormous refugee population and still grossly uneven land distribution.
The FARC chided triumphalism from Colombia’s “oligarchy.”
“You can still hear their happy laughter and enthusiastic toasts. All the establishment voices agree this is the end of the guerrilla fight in Colombia,” their statement said.
Cano, a former communist youth party leader, took over as rebel chief after the founder of the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, died of a heart attack in 2008.
It was not immediately clear who would take over from him, but analysts have suggested FARC commanders Ivan Marquez or Timoleon Jimenez, known as Timochenko, could be candidates.
Desertions and military strikes have reduced the rebels’ ranks to about 7,000 fighters, from about 17,000 at their peak. But the group has survived for more than 40 years and still has a cadre of experienced mid-level commanders.
Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Todd Eastham