Colombia claims Farc leader 'dead'


The founder and chief commander of Colombia's Farc rebel force, Manuel Marulanda, has died after more than 40 years fighting the state from jungle and mountain camps, the Colombian government has claimed.

If confirmed, the death of Manuel Marulanda, who organised the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas in the 1960s, would be the greatest blow yet to Latin America's oldest insurgency, already weakened by a military setbacks.

Reports that Marulanda, also known as "Sureshot," had died or fallen ill have surfaced before, but they were never confirmed. He was in his late 70s and has not been seen in public since failed peace talks more than five years ago.

"Through military intelligence, we learned Pedro Antonio Marin, alias Manuel Marulanda or Sureshot, the principal chief of the Farc, is dead," the Defence Ministry said in a statement. "The cause of death is still to be confirmed."

The legendary rebel chief either died of a heart attack, according to Farc information, or during military bombardments in late March in the southern jungles where he spent much of guerrilla life, the ministry said without providing proof.

President Alvaro Uribe, speaking to reporters, stopped short of claiming victory against the FARC. "These sources are serious, we hope," he said.

Uribe's father was killed during a botched Farc kidnapping two decades ago and is popular for cracking down on the rebels.

A shy, peasant who once sold sweets for a living, Marulanda took up arms in a left-wing insurgency fighting for social justice in the 196Os. But after four decades, the Farc has been weakened by Uribe's U.S.-backed security campaign.

But several senior Farc commanders have been killed or captured recently as the rebels struggle against increasing military pressure and growing desertions from their ranks.

Experts said Marulanda's authority was always a cohesive element in the ranks of the Farc, which during its peak had 17,000 fighters but is now closer to 9,000 combatants.