BOGOTA (Reuters) - A top Colombian guerrilla commander was killed on Saturday in an attack on his jungle camp along the frontier with Ecuador in a severe blow to Latin America’s oldest insurgency, the government said.
Raul Reyes was one of the seven members of the leadership secretariat of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a former peasant army that U.S. and European officials now label a cocaine-trafficking terrorist organization.
The death of the top rebel commander is the most significant success in President Alvaro Uribe’s U.S.-backed security campaign against the Marxist-inspired guerrillas who are fighting a four-decade-old conflict.
“As a result of this operation 17 guerrillas were killed. Among them was FARC secretariat member Luis Edgar Devia Silva, better known as Raul Reyes,” Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told reporters in a news conference.
Santos said intelligence had revealed Reyes’ movements near the frontier. After an air strike by the Colombian military, Colombian troops came under fire from guerrillas hiding in Ecuadorean territory and they responded. Reyes’ body was brought back into Colombia to prevent rebels from taking it away, he said.
Uribe contacted Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa to inform him of the operation and Quito was sending troops to investigate. Venezuela and Ecuador often complain about the guerrilla war spilling over their borders.
Violence from Colombia’s conflict has ebbed under Uribe, who has sent troops to retake regions under the control of armed groups. But the FARC is still potent in remote areas, where it holds scores of hostages, including three Americans and French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has made freeing Betancourt a foreign policy priority, urged that the incident not upset efforts to broker a deal to exchange jailed guerrillas for FARC hostages held for years in the jungle.
Reyes, a bespectacled and bearded leader, was one of the FARC’s top political officers and the group’s official spokesman, who often signed statements from the mountains of Colombia. He was known for his tough stance on negotiations.
“This ends the myth of FARC invulnerability and could cause serious doubts among its troops,” said Alfredo Rangel, an analyst at the Security and Democracy Foundation in Bogota.
“It could produce a shift in the secretariat in favor of more pragmatic and flexible positions in terms of the humanitarian exchange and peace negotiations given that Reyes always maintained a hard line,” he said.
The operation against Reyes follows several military successes against the FARC.
In October, Colombian troops backed by war planes killed FARC commander Gustavo Rueda Diaz at a base near the Caribbean coast and a month earlier killed Tomas Medina, a senior rebel involved in arms and drug smuggling near Venezuela.
Started as a peasant army fighting for a socialist state in the 1960s, authorities say the FARC is now deeply engaged in cocaine trafficking to fund its operations. Under Uribe, rebel bombings and attacks have decreased as the FARC has been pushed back into remoter mountains and jungles.
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