updated 1/3/2004 2:45:18 PM ET 2004-01-03T19:45:18

A senior leader of Colombia’s main rebel group was arrested Saturday in neighboring Ecuador — the highest-ranking official of the leftist guerrilla army to be captured in nearly four decades of war with the government.

Authorities captured Simon Trinidad at dawn in a medical clinic in Ecuador where he sought treatment for an undisclosed illness, an official with Colombia’s secret police, known as the DAS, told Th Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Trinidad, whose real name is Ricardo Ovidio Palmera Pineda, is one of seven members of the ruling secretariat of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which seeks to topple the government and create a Marxist state.

Trinidad, the first member of the secretariat to be captured, became well-known in Colombia as one of the top negotiators during peace talks that began in January 1999. The talks collapsed in February 2002, and the army resumed operations against the FARC.

Colombia had issued an international arrest warrant to Interpol, the international police agency, and offered a reward for Trinidad’s arrest.

The capture comes after the commander of the Colombian army, Gen. Martin Orlando Carreno, made it his New Year’s resolution to capture or kill at least one of the seven secretariat members within a year, or resign.

Officials believe that Trinidad is very ill and traveled to Ecuador two months ago to seek medical treatment.

Colombian authorities were drawing up the paperwork to have Trinidad extradited as quickly as possible, the DAS official said.

Earlier this month, the FARC said that another member of the secretariat, Efrain Guzman, died of natural causes at 68. Guzman, one of the rebel group’s founders, was replaced by Ivan Rios.

The FARC and a smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army, have been battling the government for 39 years.

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