BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s military said on Saturday its troops had killed a top rebel commander in an attack on a jungle camp across the border in Ecuador in a severe blow to Latin America’s oldest guerrilla insurgency.
Raul Reyes, one of seven members of the secretariat of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was killed in an operation that included air strikes and fighting with rebels across the border, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said.
Reyes was considered by analysts to be the No. 2 FARC commander and is the most senior member of the group to be killed in President Alvaro Uribe’s U.S.-backed campaign against the guerrillas fighting a more than four-decade-old conflict.
“We have taken another step toward defeating the celebrity of bloody terrorism, which 50 years ago was ideological, but today is a terrorism of mercenaries and drug traffickers,” Uribe said in a national television broadcast.
In the operation, 17 rebels were killed, including Reyes, whose real name was Luis Edgar Devia Silva, along with senior guerrilla Guillermo Torres, Santos said.
Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper published on its Web site a photograph of what it said was Reyes’ bloodied corpse in a stained white shirt lying on a black body bag.
Violence from Colombia’s conflict has ebbed under Uribe, who has sent troops to drive back the rebels. But the FARC is still potent in remote areas, where it holds scores of hostages, including three Americans and French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt.
Santos said intelligence had revealed Reyes’ movements near the border. After an air strike by the Colombian military, Colombian troops came under fire from guerrillas in Ecuadorean territory and they responded. Reyes’ body was brought back into Colombia to prevent rebels taking it away, he said.
Uribe contacted Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa to inform him of the operation and Quito sent troops to investigate. Venezuela and Ecuador often complain about the guerrilla war spilling over their borders.
Correa later on Saturday called back his ambassador in Colombia for consultation.
“Obviously the Ecuadorean airspace was violated ... and not only that but they took away the body of Raul Reyes and left 15 other bodies in the area,” Correa said.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose role in negotiating the release of FARC hostages has fueled tensions with Colombia, accused Uribe of violating Ecuadorean territory and warned a similar operation in Venezuela would be a declaration of war.
“It would be extremely serious and would be a causa belli, a cause for war, (if there is) a military incursion in Venezuelan territory,” Chavez said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has made freeing Betancourt a priority, urged all sides not to let the killing upset recent efforts to broker a deal to exchange jailed guerrillas for FARC hostages held for years in jungle camps.
Reyes, bespectacled and bearded, was one of the FARC’s top political officers and the group’s official spokesman who often sent statements from the mountains of Colombia. He was known for his tough stance in past negotiations with the government.
A diminutive former union leader, Reyes joined the FARC in the 1970s and was a close associate of aging FARC leader Pedro Antonio Marin, also known as “Manuel Marulanda” or “Sureshot.” He was involved with Marin’s daughter.
“This ends the myth of FARC invulnerability and could cause serious doubts among its troops,” said Alfredo Rangel, an analyst at 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 killing of Reyes followed several military successes against the FARC.
In October, Colombian troops backed by warplanes killed FARC commander Gustavo Rueda Diaz at a base near the Caribbean coast. A month earlier, they killed Tomas Medina, a senior rebel involved in arms and drug smuggling near Venezuela.
The FARC started as a peasant army fighting for a socialist state in the 1960s. Authorities say it is now deeply engaged in cocaine trafficking to fund its operations.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Peter Cooney