Sureshot, Colombian rebel leader, is dead

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The Independent US

Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, the founder and top commander of Colombia's main left-wing insurgency, has died of a heart attack after more than four decades fighting a fierce guerrilla war, his rebel group confirmed last night.

Columbia's Defence Minister, Juan Manuel Santos, welcomed the confirmation of the rebel leader's death, and said that "the end of the Farc is in sight". He added: "We are winning but we haven't yet won." He and other Colombian leaders appealed to the rebels to put down their weapons and talk peace.

But Farc, which Colombia's military says has some 9,000 fighters, was characteristically defiant. "We will continue our work," rebel commander Timoleon Jimenez, alias Timochenko, said in a video message.

On hearing the news, Yolanda Pulecio, the mother and Paris-based sister of Ingrid Betancourt – the French-Colombian politician held hostage by the rebels – called on the new leader of Latin America's biggest guerrilla movement, Alfonso Cano, to "change history" and free their relative.

The demise of Marulanda denies Farc its leader, mastermind and main unifying force. Believed to have been born in about 1930 to peasant farmers in Genova, west Colombia, Marulanda single-handedly transformed a rag-tag band of farmers into one of Latin America's most feared and enduring Marxist insurgencies.

Said never to have set foot in Bogota, the Colombian capital, Marulanda was by necessity a mostly invisible figure who waged his war from the jungle and gave only a handful of press interviews. He was, however, a master of guerrilla warfare. His organisation may have reached its zenith in the 1990s when the government was forced to surrendered massive swathes of the country in the hope of gaining a truce. It never happened.

Now Farc's fortunes may have been reversed. "This is the beginning of the end," said Pablo Casas, an analyst for Security and Democracy, a think tank in Bogota. Calling Farc a "dying giant," he said: "I don't see any factor they can use to keep a strong structure. It will start collapsing."

Ending the insurgency would be a huge political prize for President Alvaro Uribe, particularly if it led to the early release of hostages, many of whose medical conditions and whereabouts are still a mystery. The most prominent among them is Ms Betancourt.

Mr Uribe said: "The government has received calls from Farc, where some leaders have announced their willingness to quit, and free hostages if the government grants them freedom. The answer is yes."