BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s two biggest rebel groups said on Wednesday they may join forces against the state after years of being pushed onto the defensive by the U.S.-backed security policies of President Alvaro Uribe.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) issued a surprise joint statement in which they threatened to unite with “force and belligerence” in their fight against the conservative Uribe.
The two groups, labeled terrorists by Washington, have deep ideological differences but now appear willing to consider uniting for the sake of survival.
"We are on our way toward working for unity," said the statement signed by the FARC and ELN. It was published on the ANNCOL news agency website (anncol.eu/) which is often the first to carry Colombian rebel statements.
“Our only enemy is North American Imperialism and its oligarchic lackeys,” the statement said.
The ELN, formed by renegade Catholic priests and inspired by the liberation theology movement of the 1960s, has clashed repeatedly with the hard-line communist FARC.
“Now they have something in common in that they have been seriously diminished by Uribe,” said Mauricio Romero, a political analyst at Bogota’s Javeriana University.
“But uniting would be largely symbolic. Their command and control capabilities have been seriously damaged and even if they were to join forces, they could not mount a threat to the security advances that Uribe has made,” Romero said.
The ELN says it has 5,000 fighters. The FARC is estimated by the government to have about 9,000 troops dedicated to extortion of local communities, kidnapping and drug running.
Uribe, whose father was killed in a botched FARC kidnapping in 1983, is seen as a hero by many for pushing the rebels onto the defensive and jump-starting investment in this Andean country once written off as a war zone. His policies have been backed by billions of dollars in U.S. military aid.
The FARC-ELN statement was released minutes after Colombia’s air force announced that it had killed a key FARC commander and nine of his bodyguards in a bombing raid carried out in the mountainous northwest of the country.
The death of Ruben Garcia, known as Danilo, head of the FARC’s ninth front, was the latest blow to the guerrilla army, which has been steadily weakened by battlefield defeats and record desertions since Uribe first came to power in 2002.
Colombia has been criticized harshly by neighboring left-wing governments in Venezuela and Ecuador for a military cooperation deal it signed with the United States in October, giving U.S. forces access to Colombian air and army bases.
Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez says the pact could set the stage for an invasion of his oil rich country, an allegation dismissed by U.S. and Colombian officials who say cooperation will be aimed at fighting the cocaine trade within Colombia.
Bogota meanwhile shows no signs of letting up against the guerrillas.
“You don’t answer terrorists with anything other than force,” Vice President Francisco Santos told reporters in response to the FARC-ELN statement.
Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Cynthia Osterman