Monday, May 26, 2008

FARC Confirms Longtime Leader, Manuel Marulanda, is Deceased

Colombia's FARC guerrillas confirm longtime chief is dead

BOGOTA (AFP) - - Colombia's leftwing FARC guerrilla army on Sunday confirmed that its founder and longtime chief, Manuel Marulanda, has died after leading a bloody, four-decade long campaign against Bogota.

The announcement by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia came a day after the Colombian government said Marulanda, nicknamed "Sureshot" by his comrades, had died on the evening of March 26.

"The great leader has gone," a member of FARC's secretariat, Timoleon "Timochenco" Jimenez, told Venezuela's Telesur, which was picked up by Colombian television.

Marulanda, 80, died after from an apparent heart attack and Jimenez said he would be succeeded by Alfonso Cano, the group's ideological chief who is seen as more of a moderate and intellectual.

The death of FARC's leader represented a major setback for the rebels, already struggling from battlefield defeats at the hands of the US-backed Colombian government forces, and prompted speculation the guerrillas might release hostages.

Bogota's report on Saturday of Marulanda's death had been followed by an announcement by President Alvaro Uribe, who said that some FARC leaders were ready to free high-profile hostages such as French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt.

Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos on Sunday called on the new FARC leader, Cano, to enter into negotiations and abandon the group's armed struggle which he said had come to nothing. "The door to achieve peace is open," Santos told a press conference.

"Three of your leaders are under ground, use this opportunity to demobilize, otherwise we will pursue military operations with more intensity," he warned.

The government said earlier that Marulanda's death "would be the hardest blow that this terrorist group has taken, since 'Sureshot' was the one who kept the criminal organization united."

The elusive Marulanda founded the FARC over four decades ago and has been rumored to be dead at least 17 times.

Marulanda turned a group of 48 armed farmers in southern Colombia into a thousands-strong organization which has fought the government and right-wing paramilitaries in a civil war that has claimed more than 200,000 lives.

The FARC has become South America's longest-running and largest insurgency. The rebels are believed to hold an estimated 750 people hostage, and traffic drugs to fund their insurgency against the government.

Uribe said on Saturday he had received "calls from the FARC in which some of the leaders announced their decision to leave the FARC and hand over Ingrid Betancourt if their freedom is guaranteed.

"The government's answer is 'yes, they are guaranteed freedom'" if they handed over hostages, Uribe said.

In a speech carried live on national television, Uribe said those leaders of the FARC who free the captives could be turned over to authorities from "France, so that they enjoy that freedom there."

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner on Sunday called Uribe's comments "very good news" but expressed concern that Bogota may be preparing to launch an army assault on rebel territory.

The FARC have in their control Betancourt, a former Colombian presidential candidate who is both a Colombian and French national, three US nationals and dozens of Colombian police and military staff. They want to swap the hostages for some 500 imprisoned comrades including three in US jails.

Betancourt was seized by the FARC in 2002 while campaigning for the presidency, and has been held ever since.

In Paris, Betancourt's mother and sister immediately launched a fresh appeal for her release, calling on the new FARC leader to make history.

Such a release would "trigger decisive action from France and the international community to reach a humanitarian accord and put Colombia on the path of peace", their statement said.

Pictures released in November showed her looking frail and the French government has warned that she may be gravely ill.

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