- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2008

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Security forces killed the No. 2 commander of Colombia’s main guerrilla group in combat yesterday, dealing what the government called the biggest blow to the leftist force since its formation.

Raul Reyes, who became the public face of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as the group’s spokesman, was killed during fighting and air strikes just across the border in neighboring Ecuador, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told reporters.

“This is the strongest blow dealt to the terrorist group to date,” Mr. Santos said.

A total of 17 rebels and one soldier died in the operation, which involved Colombia’s army, police and air force, the defense minister said. Among the rebel dead was a senior member and songwriter known as Julian Conrado.

Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, announced that a diplomatic note would be sent in protest over the offensive.

“The [Colombian] president either was poorly informed or brazenly lied to the president of Ecuador,” Mr. Correa said. He described the operation as “scandalous actions that are an aggression on our territory.”

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez expressed indignation that Colombian forces entered Ecuadoran territory. He warned that an incursion by Colombia’s military into Venezuela would be cause for war.

“Don’t think about doing that over here because it would be very serious. It would be cause for war,” Mr. Chavez said at a televised meeting with his Cabinet.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe monitored the operation through the night, according to a statement from the presidential palace.

The death of the 59-year-old Reyes, whose real name was Luis Edgar Devia Silva, marks the largest setback to the rebels since the hard-line Mr. Uribe took office in 2002 vowing to defeat them, armed with billions in U.S. aid. It was also one of the biggest blows to the group since its 1964 inception.

As the guerrillas’ maximum leader, Manuel “Sureshot” Marulanda, grows ever older, Reyes had frequently been mentioned as a potential successor.

“This could hit morale [in the FARC] because the myth of the invulnerability of the bosses is over,” said Colombia’s top security analyst, Alfredo Rangel.

There was no immediate reaction from the FARC to Reyes’ death.

The U.S. State Department had offered a bounty of $5 million for information leading to Reyes’ arrest, as well as the other six members of FARC’s ruling secretariat.

It wasn’t immediately clear how Reyes’ death would affect efforts to negotiate the release of rebel-held hostages, including French-Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors.

Yesterday’s strike also killed one of best-liked commanders in the FARC, known as Julian Conrado.

Conrado composed revolutionary songs that were played at rebel parties and distributed in videos. The quick-to-smile rebel seemed out of place in Latin America’s most brutal civil conflict, as he played the guitar, with his AK-47 leaning against the wall.

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