, BOGOTA, Sep 24 – A bold Colombian assault on a rebel camp killed the military leader of the nation\’s oldest insurgency in what defense officials called the "hardest blow ever" against the leftist guerrillas.
Ground troops supported by helicopters and warplanes stormed the fortified camp, killing the feared war commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) known as Mono Jojoy, officials said.
Bogota confirmed the death of Jorge Briceno Suarez, 57, in a raid on a rebel stronghold in the Meta department in central Colombia involving up to 800 troops including elite special forces.
President Juan Manuel Santos described the raid as "the hardest blow ever" in the history of the guerrilla movement.
"The symbol of terror in Colombia has fallen," Santos told reporters on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
Military officials said the attack was launched Wednesday 1 am (0500 GMT), and that soldiers found Briceno\’s body on Thursday.
Some 20 other rebels were killed in the coordinated military attack, which included jets dropping "smart bombs" on fortified positions.
The military said that 72 warplanes, including 30 helicopters, low-flying Super Tucano attack planes and Israeli-built Kfir jets, were involved in the attack, dubbed "Operation Sodom."
Also killed were three senior rebel leaders, including a member of the FARC directorate, a regional military commander, and the head of the group\’s urban militias, according to the military.
The information the military obtained "was so precise that practically it was as if we had obtained a household address," a military source told AFP.
"This was the mother of the FARC camps, the heart," Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera told reporters.
Rivera then called on FARC leader Alfonso Cano to surrender. "We guarantee you will live and receive just treatment under the law," he said
Rivera denied reports that there were hostages in the camp during the raid. He added that forces found "some small notes, but it would not be prudent or smart to reveal their contents."
The attack is a serious blow to the 46 year-old leftist insurgency, which has suffered the death of several top leaders since March 2008, when troops killed FARC\’s second-in-command Raul Reyes.
Officials in Washington described Briceno as a key player directing the FARC\’s drug-trafficking operations, including the production and distribution of hundreds of tonnes of cocaine around the world.
The United States had offered a reward of up to five million dollars for information leading to Briceno\’s arrest or conviction.
"This is an important victory for Colombia," said Mike Hammer, national security spokesman for US President Barack Obama.
Briceno, also known as Victor Julio Suarez Rojas, is believed to have been involved in the kidnapping of three US hostages who spent years in captivity in the Colombian jungle.
The trio was freed in July 2008, at the same time that kidnapped former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid capitalfmnewncourt was released.
Researcher Ariel Avila, who is studying the guerrilla conflict, said the loss of Briceno was "devastating" to the FARC.
"He was a myth, he was the lord" of the guerrillas, Avila told AFP, adding that he believed this would lead to disintegration or demobilization of some units.
Briceno, nicknamed Mono — Colombian slang for blonde — for his light-colored hair, was the son of farmers who joined the FARC in 1975. He had 62 warrants for his arrest.
Colombia\’s rebel groups, including the FARC, stepped up their attacks in the weeks following the August 7 inauguration of Santos, who had promised to keep pressure on the insurgents.
Santos vowed to "redouble" the military\’s offensive against the guerrillas after 40 police and military officers were killed earlier this month.
The Colombian president had rejected a FARC offer of peace talks, calling on them to first free dozens of hostages and stop recruiting minors.
Santos, asked if the operation was supported by the United States, which has access rights to seven Colombian military bases under a controversial bilateral agreement, said it was "100 percent Colombian."
The FARC is the oldest and largest leftist group in Colombia with an estimated 8,000 combatants. Another leftist guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army, has some 2,500 fighters.
Santos, a former defense minister, later warned the FARC in a statement that the military was out to get them.
"Once again I notify the leaders of the FARC and the guerrillas: We\’re going after you. We will not hold back any effort."
He said the FARC was "crumbling from within," and urged the rebels to put down their arms. "Abandon this lost cause and return to society and your families," he said.
Santos said that FARC deserters "tired of so much cruelty and the permanent siege of our armed forces" contributed to the success of the raid.