BOGOTA // Colombian troops have killed Alfonso Cano, leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in a massive anti-guerrilla operation, the government announced late Friday.
The operation was the latest in a string of recent military victories for the Colombian authorities determined to eradicate Latin America's longest-running leftist insurgency, after years of unsuccessful attempts to find a negotiated solution.
President Juan Manuel Santos, calling Cano's demise "the strongest blow sustained by the guerrilla group in all of its history," urged the FARC to lay down their arms.
"Demobilize or you will end up in prison or in a grave," the president warned.
Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said Cano was killed as a result of a military operation launched in southern Cauca department several days ago.
Between 800 and 1,000 troops took part in the battle, in which Cano's female companion was also killed, Colombian military officials said.
According to Pinzon, the military launched strikes early Friday on an area occupied by FARC rebels, followed by a ground offensive to encircle the area, cutting off escape routes.
A firefight erupted when the soldiers caught up with 63-year-old Cano and his personal security detail, and the FARC leader was killed in action, Pinzon said.
"The forensic process of his identification has already been completed," he added.
The military had been hunting for the FARC leader for months, initially believing that he was hiding in Tolima, Valle or Huila departments, officials said.
But he was initally able the escape the dragnet, moving south apparently in the hope of securing protection from guerrilla fronts operating in Cauca. But faced with fierce government bombardments, they were unable to help him.
"This is a key moment for the FARC," stressed former Colombian president Andres Pastrana. "Those in its leadership who still remain alive should think very seriously about starting peace negotiations in order to end this war for the benefit of all Colombians."
Cano, whose real name was Guillermo Leon Saenz Vargas, assumed the direction of the FARC in March 2008, after the death of its founder and revered leader, Manuel "Sure Shot" Marulanda Velez.
The FARC is Colombia's oldest and largest guerrilla force, believed to have some 8,000 members. The leftist group has been at war with the government since its founding in 1964.
It began a campaign of kidnappings in the mid-1980s, seizing army hostages to serve as bargaining chips for FARC prisoners. By the late 1990s civilians and political leaders were also being snatched, winning the group greater notoriety and increased influence with its government interlocutors.
The FARC suffered a serious loss in 2008, when its number two Raul Reyes died during a Colombian army raid in Ecuadoran territory.
Reyes was killed in an air raid that was followed by a ground operation that left numerous guerrillas dead.
That raid led to a major diplomatic rift between Colombia and Ecuador, and for a while appeared to bring Latin America to the brink of regional war, after troops were mobilized by Venezuela and Ecuador.
That same year, the FARC also lost Velez, when the reclusive 80-year-old rebel chief, who was last seen in 1982, died after a brief illness.
In recent years, the Colombian government has taken a hard line against the FARC, which has answered in kind. It flexed its muscle during former president Alvaro Uribe's August 2002 inauguration, when the group bombed the presidential palace, killing some two dozen people.
Cano hailed from a middle class family: his father was an agronomist, his mother a teacher.
He studied law and anthropology at the National University in Bogota, where he is remembered as an avid scholar of history and other social sciences.
He earned his stripes in the Communist Party and joined the FARC in the 1970s where he quickly rose through the ranks becoming the group's chief ideologist.
Throughout his career as a guerrilla leader, Cano combined military strikes with attempts to consolidate gains made by the insurgents through negotiations with the government.
Shortly before the 2010 inauguration of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Cano made public a video, in which he called for a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Colombia.
But there was no evidence of recent contacts between the FARC and the government.
"This was the most painful loss for the FARC since the deaths of Reyes and 'Sure Shot' Marulanda," commented Alfredo Rangel, a political expert from the Foundation for Security and Democracy. "It will be very difficult for the insurgents to replace him."