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Colombia says killing of No. 2 commander worst blow ever to FARC rebels

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — The powerful rebel comandante who Colombian officials say died in the bombing of a clandestine jungle camp was nicknamed "Mono Jojoy" by his comrades after a forest-dwelling worm that is white, plump and very slippery.

The killing of Jorge Briceno, the No. 2 leader and field marshal of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, announced Thursday, was a demoralizing shock to an already weakened insurgency because no rebel had more clout or a more fearsome reputation.

"He was cold-blooded and ordered so many kidnappings and killings without any qualms," former Colombian peace commissioner Camilo Gomez said of Briceno. Gomez dealt directly with Briceno in failed 1999-2002 peace talks.

President Juan Manuel Santos called Briceno's death in two days of bombardments that ended Wednesday a decisive turn in a half-century struggle against Latin America's last remaining rebel army — "the most crushing blow against the FARC in its entire history."

"It is as if they told New Yorkers that Osama bin Laden had fallen," he told The Associated Press in New York City, where he was attending the U.N. General Assembly and was to meet Friday with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Santos later Thursday night directly addressed the FARC's remaining fugitive commanders in a televised speech to the nation.

"We're coming for you and you know we'll succeed," he said. "Demobilize, return to society."

Santos said Briceno's death had more impact than the March 2008 bombing raid across the border with Ecuador that killed FARC foreign minister Raul Reyes and also surpassed the bloodless ruse in July of the same year that freed former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three U.S. contractors and 11 other hostages. Santos was defense minister during both operations.

Officials said at least one rebel turncoat had made the latest strike possible, pinpointing Briceno's location after six months of intelligence gathering.

The FARC has been reeling from pressure by an increasingly effective U.S.-backed military.

Briceno, 57, joined the FARC as an illiterate teenager and spent the rest of his life in the jungle, becoming a feared and charismatic commander in a force that at the height of its power a decade ago controlled nearly half of Colombia. His light skin and heft, along with his legendary skill at eluding capture, reminded his comrades of the "jojoy" worm, earning him his enduring nickname.

Analysts predicted his loss could lead many rebels to give up the fight and might lead the FARC to seek peace in earnest.

Santos told reporters that at least 20 rebels were killed, including other senior insurgents whose identities were not disclosed pending fingerprint and DNA tests, in bombing raids that began Monday. Air force chief Gen. Julio Gonzalez said seven rebel bodies were flown to Bogota on Thursday night.

Commandos found Briceno outside a concrete bunker in a camp laced with tunnels, and recovered 14 laptop computers and 60 USB drives, officials said.

Santos told investors in New York later Thursday that he's optimistic that the digital information they contain will hasten "the beginning of the end of 40 years of war in Colombia." Electronic messages found on computers seized in the Reyes raid proved an intelligence gold mine, including implicating leftist President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in backing the FARC.

Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera credited "the collaboration of members of the FARC itself" in Briceno's demise, adding that "the FARC is rotting inside" from record desertions and crumblng morale.

He did not offer specifics.

But an army general told the AP that a single FARC turncoat led military intelligence agents to Briceno and had been spirited out of the country with his family. The general, who insisted on not being named because he was not authoritized to talk to reporters, said he did not know how big a reward the informant would receive.

The U.S. State Department had offered a $5 million reward for Briceno. The biggest reward known to have been paid for fingering a FARC commander was $2.5 million to an informant who led authorities to Reyes' camp.

Briceno had been rotating for months among a series of camps in a rugged area of nearly 4,000 square miles (1 million hectares) where the Andes mountains drop off into eastern plains that include La Macarena massif, a national park, said one senior government official.

All the while, he was being tracked by police and Navy intelligence agents, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the subject's sensitivity.

The area is the cradle of the FARC, which was co-founded in 1964 by Briceno's mentor Manuel Marulanda, a legendary fighter who died in 2008 of an apparent heart attack in the same region.

Briceno, whose walrus mustache made him widely recognizable, had risen through the insurgency's ranks to become its most powerful and respected field commander as well as a major drug trafficker.

His rise saw the rebels increasingly turn to cocaine production, evolving from taxing farmers who grew coca to producing the drug and selling it to exporters.

The first major attack on record ordered by Briceno was a 1987 ambush in San Vicente del Caguan that killed 26 soldiers and wounded 44. The biggest was the 1998 taking of the provincial capital of Mitu in which 60 police officers were killed and 30 captured.

Military analyst Alfredo Rangel said Briceno's death could lead to many more desertions.

Briceno fell at "the mother of all FARC camps," a complex some 300 yards (meters) from end to end, said Rivera. Five government troops were wounded in the operation, he said.

Briceno was named to the FARC's seven-member ruling Secretariat in 1993. Like most insurgents, he was from a poor family. A fighter from age 15, he began as a messenger and learned to read as a rebel.

The group's main leader, Alfonso Cano, remains at large and is believed hiding in central mountains. Colombian officials say other Secretariat members are hiding out in neighboring Venezuela.

Authorities estimate the FARC's strength at about 8,000 — half what it was a decade ago.

Many Colombians considered Briceno a key obstacle to efforts to renew peace talks.

Betancourt, who is on a U.S. book tour promoting her memoir of 6 1/2 years in FARC captivity, told NPR on Thursday that as long as Briceno was alive she didn't think Colombia could have a serious peace process.

But Briceno was less rigidly dogmatic than Cano, a Bogota-bred intellectual.

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who follows Colombia closely, called on Cano to call a cease-fire and release all remaining hostages. An estimated 18 still remain in Colombian jungles.

However critics say the root cause of Colombia's conflict — the U.N. says the richest tenth of its population earns more than 60 times what its poorest tenth does — remains to be seriously addressed.

Briceno, born Victor Julio Suarez Rojas, won international celebrity during the failed 1999-2002 peace talks in a Switzerland-sized swath of southern Colombia that included the La Macarena region.

A swaggering figure who loved to crack jokes, he would hold court with reporters in a safe haven granted for those talks, arriving on rutted dirt roads in stolen late-model SUVs with a dozen or so female bodyguards.

More recent photographs of him show a gaunt man who authorities say suffered from diabetes.

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Associated Press writers Libardo Cardona, Cesar Garcia, Jessica Lleras and Carlos Gonzalez in Colombia, and Mariana Cristancho-Ahn in New York, contributed to this report.