BOGOTA (AFP) — The head of Colombia's Marxist FARC rebels, Manuel Marulanda, is dead, the army announced Saturday in a major development in its fight against Latin America's oldest insurgency.
"Manuel Marulanda or 'Sure Shot,' the main leader of the FARC, is dead," an army spokesman said, adding that he "died March 26 at 6:30pm. The cause of death is yet to be determined."
His replacement as FARC leader will be Alfonso Cano, seen as the group's ideological leader, the spokesman said.
The elusive Marulanda, who was about 80 when he died, founded the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) over four decades ago. He was last seen in public in 1982 and has been rumored to be dead at least 17 times.
"If (the FARC) are going to say that the information we have is not true, they must prove it," the statement said, boasting that "whether Marulanda died in an air raid or of natural causes, this would be the hardest blow that this terrorist group has taken, since 'Sure Shot' was the one who kept the criminal organization united."
Over 40 years, 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 weekly Semana magazine had earlier reported Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos as saying that Marulanda, alias "Tiro Fijo," meaning "Sure Shot," had died.
In January, a Brazilian newspaper reported a rumor that Marulanda had terminal cancer.
Marulanda was born in Genova, a coffee growing town in the western province of Quindio. He took up arms as a teenager after several relatives died in political violence following the 1948 killing of leftist leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan.
He hid in Quindio's mountains along with 14 cousins and farmers opposing Colombia's conservative government and later embraced the Marxist doctrine after being approached by Colombia's Communist Party.
FARC was born four years later, on May 27, 1964, when Marulanda's group of 48 armed farmers came under attack from the military in Marquetalia, a town in southern Colombia.
Two years later, the group changed its name from the Southern Front to FARC, a group that sought land reform but also power. FARC has used narcotics and "war taxes" on the population to finance its insurgency.
Marulanda remained FARC's political and military mastermind. His official biographer, Arturo Alape, described him as a reserved and serene man who spoke with a deliberate and paternal tone.
The FARC has become South America's longest-running and largest insurgency. The rebels now hold an estimated 750 people hostage and traffic drugs to fund their insurgency against the government in Bogota.
"Sure Shot" was married with an unknown number of children, including a daughter who is believed to be part of his rebel group.
Marulanda held peace talks with former president Andres Pastrana, who led Colombia from 1998 to 2002. But the negotiations broke off in February 2002 after FARC was blamed for hijacking a commercial airliner and kidnapping two passengers.
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