Suspected rebels killed 24 Colombian soldiers who were protecting government workers Tuesday during a coca eradication effort, an army general said. It was the deadliest rebel attack in a year marked by hundreds of army deaths.

Gen. Hernando Ortiz said the troops came under attack by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as they provided security to workers who were destroying crops of coca, the plant used to make cocaine.

The attack took place near Vista Hermosa, 105 miles south of Bogota, said Ortiz, the army's No. 2 commander.

Since the beginning of the year, more than 600 government forces, including military and police, have been killed by the FARC or other illegal, armed groups, according to government statistics.

Among other major rebel attacks this year, several hundred FARC fighters in June launched an assault against a small military base in southern Putumayo, killing 22 soldiers. And in February, the FARC used homemade rockets to attack a marine outpost on the Iscuande River in southwest Colombia, killing 16 marines.

The FARC, which funds itself mainly through drug trafficking and kidnapping, is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

Founded 40 years ago and with at least 12,000 fighters, the FARC is the country's main rebel group. Its expressed aim is to fight for social revolution and redistribute wealth in this country of 44 million people.

Hard-line President Alvaro Uribe, backed by billions of dollars in U.S. aid to fight drug trafficking and rebels, launched a military offensive against the FARC in the southern region where Tuesday's attack occurred. Colombia is the world's leading producer of cocaine, and supplies up to 90 percent of the U.S. market.

Despite the offensive, the FARC continues to have a strong presence in the region.