BOGOTA, Colombia – German Briceno Suarez, a gruff, potbellied rebel commander, faces trial in the United States after being indicted Tuesday for the killings of three Americans -- except authorities have to catch him first.
For years, the rebel chieftain and other leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have eluded capture.
Five other FARC members, all believed to be lower-ranking, were indicted Tuesday by a federal grand jury in Washington. All are also believed to be on the loose in the vast tracts of jungles, plains and mountains controlled by Latin America's biggest and oldest guerrilla insurgency.
If any of the six are captured, the Colombian government would extradite them to the United States as long as the petition was in order, Colombian Ambassador Luis Alberto Moreno told reporters in Washington.
Capturing the leadership of the 17,000-strong FARC has been a priority for the Colombian military since the country's three-year peace process broke down Feb. 20 after the rebels hijacked an airliner and kidnapped a Colombian senator on board.
The U.S.-backed army troops have come frustratingly close several times to finding members of the rebel high command, said a Colombian military source.
"We've had combat with their security cordons," the source told foreign reporters on condition he not be further identified. "We even captured some of the security personnel."
Colombia's attorney general Luis Camilo Osorio welcomed the indictment as a weapon against terrorism.
"Anyone in the international community that can help us combat terrorism is welcome," he said.
There was no immediate comment from the FARC, who abandoned their safe haven -- and their offices and fixed camps -- for the bush when the peace process collapsed.
However, in a statement earlier this month, the rebels said President Andres Pastrana had canceled the peace talks "with the blessing of the government of the United States" and accused the Bush administration of interving in Colombia's internal affairs.
The indictments announced by Attorney General John Ashcroft came more than three years after the bullet-riddled bodies of Terence Freitas, Ingrid Washinawatok and Leh'ena'e Gay were found dumped just across Colombia's northeastern border, in Venezuela.
Unlike the others indicted Tuesday, Briceno is a known rebel figure. The brother of FARC military strategist Jorge Briceno, German Briceno commands FARC troops in eastern Colombia.
He was convicted by a Colombian court and sentenced in absentia on September 10, 2001, to 40 years in prison for the 1999 murders of three Americans, who were pro-Indian activists. Also convicted in absentia was Gustavo Bocota, another FARC member in the Washington indictment.
The U.S. indictments come as the Bush administration is trying to widen military assistance to the South American nation, beyond the counternarcotics aid that currently comprises most of the aid.