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2nd death a severe blow to Colombia’s rebels

APTOPIX Colombia Rebels
The body of Ivan Rios, a top leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, lies inside a helicopter at a military base in Pereira, Colombia, Saturday, March 8, 2008. Rios was killed by his security chief who gave Colombian troops the leader's severed right hand as proof. Rios was the second top rebel killed in a week, a major setback for the FARC, the country's largest rebel force. Fernando Vergara / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The guerrilla walked out of the jungle tired, hungry and bearing the dismembered hand of his slain commander.

The rebel, known simply as Rojas, said the Colombian troops were closing in on his guerrilla column and he wanted out of the fight. But the rebels shoot deserters — so instead he murdered his commander and fled, lopping off the dead man's right hand to present to the army.

"I did it to save my life," the mustachioed rebel told a press conference Saturday in the western city of Pereira. "Because if you're going to desert, they'll shoot you."

The morbid delivery represented an unexpected gift for President Alvaro Uribe: the death of the second top Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, leader in a week, and a severe blow to the rebel group's four-decade-long insurgency.

The slaying of Ivan Rios, leader of the FARC's central region, came less than a week after Colombian troops crossed the border into Ecuador on March 1 and killed senior rebel commander Raul Reyes and 24 others. The raid sparked a diplomatic crisis that saw Ecuador and its ally Venezuela both pull their ambassadors from Bogota and order troops to their borders with Colombia.

Presidents of the three countries agreed to end the dispute at a summit of Latin American leaders held Friday in the Dominican Republic, but hard feelings still linger.

Uribe argued the strike was necessary because Ecuador had allowed the guerrillas to take refuge within its borders, and accused both Ecuador and Venezuela of supporting the leftist rebels. Both nations vehemently denied the charge, and denounced Colombia's violation of Ecuadorean sovereignty.

On Saturday, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said he would "take a little time" before restoring diplomatic relations with Colombia. He added it would be "difficult to recover trust" in Colombia's government, but "we will converse and move forward."

But in Colombia, the death of Rios pushed aside these diplomatic worries as military officials proudly displayed his body wrapped in a white plastic sheet — with a small bullet hole in the middle of his forehead.

"The death of Ivan Rios, at the hands of one of his own fellow guerrillas, definitely has to represent the interior implosion" of the rebels, said Gen. Mario Montoya, the army's top commander.

Analysts say the deaths of Reyes and Rios, 46, represent a domestic triumph for Uribe well worth the fallout with Ecuador and Venezuela.

"These are very big victories" for Uribe, said Leon Valencia, a Colombian political analyst formerly with the now defunct M-19 leftist rebel group. "How he handled this sometimes doesn't fit with the politics of the rest of the Andean region, but they're still very big victories."

Rojas presented himself to Colombian troops on Thursday carrying Rios' right hand, laptop, passport and ID card.

After verifying Rios' identity by fingerprints, Colombian officials announced Rios' death Friday afternoon _ even as Uribe and Correa were stiffly shaking hands at the Santo Domingo summit, warily declaring their feud to be over.

Rojas, who appears to be in his 40s and whose real name is Pedro Montoya, described how dwindling food supplies and relentless pursuit by troops prompted him to kill Rios and his girlfriend, known only as Andrea, before making his escape.

"We were out there 15 days, the food was getting scarce and the troops could have entered our area at any moment," he said Saturday.

The U.S. State Department had a bounty of $5 million for Rios' capture, although the agency's spokesman, Kurtis Cooper, had no comment on whether the reward would be paid in this case.

It was unclear whether Colombian officials would offer their own reward. But Gen. Montoya said Saturday the nation's defense ministry had "every intention" of paying Rojas, now in military custody.

Rios' face, ringed by a thin black beard, became known across Colombia when he represented the FARC in failed 2002 peace talks. Unlike the FARC's mostly peasant leadership, he was a former university student who engaged journalists and foreign envoys in political discussions.

In a 1999 interview with The Associated Press, Rios said he joined the insurgency as an economics student in Medellin in the 1980s to avoid being killed by right-wing death squads that had attacked other student activists. A report Saturday in the El Espectador newspaper said Rios was key to managing the FARC's finances, just as Reyes handled its foreign relations.

Colombian troops had launched an operation designed to capture Rios on Feb. 17 after receiving tips that he was in a mountainous area straddling the western Colombian provinces of Caldas and Antioquia. Troops engaged the guerrillas' outer security ring seven times before Rojas killed Rios, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said Friday after Rojas turned himself in.