Colombian forces killed the FARC rebel leader, Alfonso Cano, in combat, delivering another big blow to Latin America's longest guerrilla insurgency, the Defence Ministry said on Friday.
The FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, has been battered by a U.S.-backed military campaign started in 2002 and the waning insurgency has lost several key commanders in the past four years.
The death of Cano, who took over leadership of the rebels after their founder died in 2008, is a strategic victory for President Juan Manuel Santos, who came to office last year promising to keep up a hard-line stance against the guerrillas.
Cano's death followed the killing late last year of top FARC military commander Mono Jojoy in a bombardment and assault on his camp.
The strike against Cano underscored how Colombia's military can now attack rebel leaders deep in mountains and jungles.
While unlikely to bring a swift end to nearly five decades of war, Cano's death will further damage the rebel group's ability to regroup and coordinate high-profile attacks.
Once a powerful force controlling large swaths of Colombia, the FARC is at its weakest in decades.
Violence, bombings and kidnapping from the conflict have eased sharply as Colombian troops used better intelligence, U.S. training and technology to take the fight the rebels.
Foreign investment in Colombia has surged since the military crackdown began in 2002, especially in oil and mining. But the FARC and other armed groups have continued to pose a threat in rural areas where the state's presence is weak and cocaine trafficking lets the rebels finance their operations.
Desertions and military operations have whittled down rebel ranks to about 7,000 fighters, but the FARC has survived for more than 40 years, and still has a cadre of mid-level experienced commanders. Rebels rely increasingly on hit-and-run tactics and ambushes in rural areas.
(Writing by Jack Kimball; Editing by Peter Cooney)