updated 3/1/2008 11:45:08 AM ET 2008-03-01T16:45:08

Colombia's defense minister said security forces killed a leading commander of the FARC rebel group on Saturday.

The commander known as "Raul Reyes" was also the leftist rebels' official spokesman, Juan Manuel Santos said a news conference. He was killed in the southern province of Putumayo, a long-time guerrilla stronghold near the border with Ecuador.

It was by far the most severe blow to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia since hard-line President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002. A total of 17 rebels and one soldier were killed in the fighting.

As well as writing the group's statements and meeting with journalists, Reyes, whose real name was Luis Edgar Devia Silva, was considered a contender to take over the FARC, Colombia's largest rebel group. He was thought to be 59 years old.

The State Department had offered a bounty of $5 million for information leading to the arrest of Reyes.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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