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Colombia says top guerilla leader, 18 more killed

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian troops backed by war planes have killed a top guerrilla commander in an assault on his jungle camp, delivering another serious blow to the country’s largest rebel group, authorities said on Thursday.

Colombia's rebel commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) Gustavo Rueda (R), also known as Martin Caballero, poses with his children in Montes de Maria jungle in this undated file photo. Colombian troops killed top guerrilla commander Rueda in a fight at his camp, delivering another major blow to the leadership of the country's largest rebel group, authorities said on October 25, 2007. REUTERS/Handout

Gustavo Rueda Diaz, known as Martin Caballero, and at least 18 other rebels were killed on Wednesday when marines attacked his base near the Caribbean coast, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said at a news conference.

The assault hits at the command structure of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which has been weakened by President Alvaro Uribe’s U.S.-backed security crackdown against Latin America’s oldest guerrilla insurgency.

“FARC commanders should know they have no future because we will find them in every corner of the country,” Santos said. “I invite you to surrender or end up in jail or in the grave.”

U.S. authorities were investigating Caballero for his involvement in a foiled guerrilla plot to assassinate U.S. President Bill Clinton on a 2000 visit to the Caribbean city of Cartagena, the U.S. Embassy and Colombian officials said.

Under Uribe, Colombia’s armed forces have driven the FARC back into the jungles. Violence, bombings and kidnappings from the 40-year-old conflict have eased, but the rebels are still a potent force in remote rural areas.

In September, authorities said Tomas Medina, known as “Black Acacio” and a senior figure the government says was involved in drugs and arms smuggling for the FARC, was killed with 16 other guerrillas in a bombardment of his camp.

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Caballero headed FARC operations along the northern coast. He was responsible for the 2000 kidnapping of the current foreign minister, who was appointed to his post after he escaped last year from rebel captivity.

“In military terms he was important,” said Alfredo Rangel at the Security and Democracy think tank in Bogota. “This takes apart their structure in the north of the country.”

Started as a peasant army fighting for a socialist state in the 1960s, the FARC is now engaged in the country’s cocaine trade to finance its operations. The smaller ELN rebel force is in fledgling peace talks with the government.

A Washington ally whose father was killed two decades ago by the FARC, Uribe is popular for making cities and highways safer and sending troops to retake parts of the country once under the control of rebels and outlawed paramilitary gangs.

But he is under pressure over a scandal linking some of his lawmaker allies to former paramilitary warlords, who have surrendered in a peace deal with Uribe, but who rights groups say have kept their criminal networks alive.

Uribe and the FARC are deadlocked over the release of rebel-held hostages, including French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. contract workers who have been held for more than four years in secret jungle camps.