BOGOTA: A bold assault by Colombian armed forces has killed the military leader of the nation’s oldest insurgency in what defense officials Thursday called the “hardest blow ever” against the leftist guerrillas.
Bogota confirmed the death of Jorge Briceno Suarez, 57, head of military operations for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in an early morning raid on a rebel stronghold involving as many as 800 troops, including elite special forces.
President Juan Manuel Santos, sworn in just last month, called the operation a major victory against the FARC, a nearly five decade old Marxist insurgency in the South American nation.
“It’s the hardest blow ever” in the history of the guerrilla movement, Santos told reporters on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. “The symbol of terror in Colombia has fallen.”
A defense ministry source told AFP the coordinated military attack also took the lives of 20 other rebels in the central Colombian department of Meta.
Officials said that the raid known as “Operation Sodom,” was supported by 72 aircraft and located the key stronghold of the rebels.
“This was the mother of the FARC camps, the heart,” Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera told reporters.
Rivera then called on the head of the FARC, Alfonso Cano, to surrender following what analysts said was a huge blow to the leftist guerrilla group.
“Alfonso Cano, give yourself up,” he said. “We guarantee you will live and receive just treatment under the law.”
The defense official said Briceno’s body would be taken to a medical examiner and be treated “will all respect and legality.”
He denied reports that there were hostages in the camp during the raid. He added that forces found “some small notes, but it would not be prudent or smart to reveal their contents.”
Officials in Washington described Briceno as a key player directing the FARC’s drug-trafficking operations, including the production and distribution of hundreds of tonnes of cocaine around the world.
The United States had offered a reward of up to five million dollars for information leading to the arrest or conviction of Briceno.
Colombian authorities said there were dozens of charges outstanding against Briceno, including murder and kidnapping, and US authorities also had lodged an extradition request against him with the Bogota government.
“This is an important victory for Colombia,” said Mike Hammer, national security spokesman for US President Barack Obama.
Briceno, also known as Victor Julio Suarez Rojas and by the alias Mono Jojoy, is believed to have had a hand in the kidnapping of three American hostages who spent years in captivity in the Colombian jungle.
The trio was freed in July 2008, at the same time that kidnapped former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt was released.
Briceno’s death is seen as the most important military victory since March 2008, when troops killed FARC’s second-in-command Raul Reyes.
Researcher Ariel Avila, who is studying the guerrilla conflict, said the loss of Briceno was “devastating” to the FARC.
“He was a myth, he was the lord” of the guerrillas, Avila told AFP, adding that he believed this would lead to disintegration or demobilization of some units.
Colombia’s rebel groups, including the FARC, stepped up their attacks in the weeks following the August inauguration of Santos, a former defense minister who had promised to keep pressure on the insurgents.
Santos had vowed to “redouble” the military’s offensive against the country’s leftist guerrillas, after 40 police and military officers were killed earlier this month.
The Colombian president had rejected a rebel offer of peace talks, calling on them to first free dozens of hostages and stop recruiting minors.
Santos, asked if the operation was supported by the United States, said it was “100 percent Colombian.
The FARC is the oldest and largest leftist group in Colombia with an estimated 8,000 combatants. Another guerrilla group is the National Liberation Army, with some 2,500.