- Associated Press - Thursday, September 23, 2010

BOGOTA, Colombia | Colombia’s military killed the field marshal and No. 2 leader of the country’s main leftist rebel group in bombing raids and combat at a major guerrilla encampment at the edge of the country’s eastern plains, authorities announced Thursday.

The death of Jorge Briceno, 57, is a huge setback for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which has been reeling from a decade of pressure by the U.S.-backed military.

It was not immediately clear whether Mr. Briceno was killed by bombs or bullets.

President Juan Manuel Santos called his death “the most crushing blow against the FARC in its entire history” - more important than the March 2008 bombing raid across the border with Ecuador that killed FARC foreign minister Raul Reyes or the bloodless rescue that July that freed former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. contractors without firing a shot.

Mr. Santos was defense minister during both operations.

He told a news conference at the United Nations in New York that at least 20 rebels were killed, including other senior insurgents, in operations that began with bombing raids Monday night involving at least 30 warplanes and 27 helicopters and ended with ground combat on Wednesday.

But the key to success was long-percolating human intelligence, said a senior government official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the subject’s sensitivity.

The official said Mr. Briceno had been rotating for months among a series of camps in a rugged area of nearly 4,000 square miles where the Andes mountains drop off into eastern plains that include the La Macarena massif, a national park.

Police and navy intelligence agents succeeded in infiltrating his operation and pinpointing his movements, the official added.

In June, Colombian commandos rescued four hostages - including a police general - in nearby jungles without any casualties.

The area is the cradle of FARC, which was co-founded in 1964 by Manuel Marulanda, a legendary fighter who died in 2008 of an apparent heart attack in the same region and was Mr. Briceno’s mentor.

Mr. Briceno, whose walrus mustache made him widely recognizable, had risen through the insurgency’s ranks to become its top military strategist and most respected field commander.

His rise also saw the rebels increasingly turn to cocaine production.

“He was at the heart of the FARC’s military effort and of its morale,” said Sergio Jaramillo, Mr. Santos‘ national security adviser.

Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera said the operation that killed Mr. Briceno targeted “the mother of all FARC camps,” a complex that included tunnels and a concrete bunker where the slain commander “took refuge.”

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