Leader of Colombia's FARC Rebels Is Dead

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Colombia's largest rebel group says its top leader has died of a heart attack.

A senior rebel commander known as Timochenko told the Venezuela-based Telesur network Sunday that Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, died "in the arms of his companion, surrounded by his bodyguards."

Timochenko confirmed an announcement by Colombia's Defense Ministry Saturday that Marulanda died on March 26.

Marulanda, whose real name is Pedro Antonio Marin, was believed to be about 80 and had led the FARC since its founding in 1964.

Colombia's government has announced his death various times over the past 15 years, but until now each time proof that he was alive cropped up months later.

"If [the FARC] are going to say that the information we have is not true, they should show him," said the statement, which was read by the military's chief of staff, Admiral David Moreno.

The FARC did not immediately respond on the web sites that publish rebel communiques.

Colombia has tried for years to bring down the FARC, which the government says is currently holding 700 hostages, including three U.S. military contractors and French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt, who was running for president when the rebels kidnapped her in 2002.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has made defeating the FARC his chief objective, and on Saturday he said in a speech in a conflict-torn section of western Colombia that rebels "have called to tell the government they are disposed to desert and free hostages, beginning with Dr. Ingrid Betancourt" -- but want guarantees they won't be jailed.

Uribe said the government would ask the judiciary to grant such people "conditional liberty." He said rebels who desert and turn over hostages could benefit from a fund of up to $100 million and "be dispatched immediately to a country such as France."

First word of Marulanda's possible death came earlier Saturday when the newsmagazine Semana quoted Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos as saying he had information that Marulanda died in the guerrillas' southern Colombian stronghold at the time of three bombing raids.

In the Semana interview, Santos said the government had been told of the rebel leader's death from a "source who has never failed us."

A senior defense official said the military's main intelligence source was human and that communications intercepts support the claim.