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Colombian Rebels Confirm Leader's Death

Leaders of Colombia's most powerful rebel group have confirmed the death of longtime guerrilla leader Manuel Marulanda. VOA's Brian Wagner has this report from Miami.

A top official for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia appeared in a video aired on Venezuelan television Sunday, confirming the death of the 78-year-old leader. He said the group's maximum leader had suffered a heart attack in March, saying he died "in the arms of his partner." He said Alfonso Cano would take over the top spot from Marulanda.

Colombia's military had called on rebels late Saturday to confirm or deny intelligence reports suggesting that Marulanda was dead.

Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said his death closed a chapter for the FARC, which he said has only brought suffering, violence and death to the country. He said now was the time for current rebel leaders to accept the government's offers for peace talks.

Marulanda's death is the latest blow to the guerrilla movement, which has been blamed for scores of killings and atrocities in its 40-year history. Colombia's military killed the group's second in command Raul Reyes during a raid inside Ecuador in March. Another top official, Ivan Rios, was killed by his unit's security chief, who later turned himself into police and received a reward of $2.5 million for the leader's death.

Florida International University Professor Eduardo Gamarra says the decentralized structure of the rebel group, known as FARC, means Marulanda's death may not hurt the group's future.

"It is so decentralized that the death of Marulanda is probably more of a symbolic blow than anything else, not a major blow to logistics and being able to fight the war," said Eduardo Gamarra. "But having said that, the FARC has taken some significant blows in the last few months."

Marulanda was seen as one of the longest serving guerrilla fighters in the world. Born in a coffee-growing region in central Colombia, he first took up arms with liberal peasant groups during a period of political violence sparked in the late 1940s. Two decades later, he joined with other liberal and Communist leaders to found the FARC to defend rural poor in a struggle with the government and Colombia's wealthy classes.

Gamarra says Marulanda was one of the last FARC members with roots in the early political conflict.

"In that sense, Marulanda was extremely important because he was a 80-year-old man continuing a battle that was over a 100-years-old in Colombia over land, access to rights and so on," he said.

Gamarra says Alfonso Cano and other current FARC leaders were born after the political conflict, and rose to power as the rebel group became involved in illegal drug trafficking in the 1990s. He says the younger leaders are responsible for the shift into drugs, violence against civilians and other controversial decisions.

Human rights groups have condemned the FARC for its role in drug and arms trafficking, kidnapping and killing civilians, and recruiting child soldiers.