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Alfonso Cano tipped to be new FARC leader

Alfonso Cano, known more as a political leader and negotiator than a hardline military strategist, takes over as the new FARC leader. Cano replaces Manuel Marulanda who died of a heart attack, the rebel group said.

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BOGOTA, May 25 (Reuters) - Manuel "Sureshot' Marulanda, the
founder and top commander of Colombia's main left-wing
insurgency, has died of a heart attack after more than four
decades fighting a fierce guerrilla war, his rebel group said.


Marulanda organized the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia, or FARC, as a communist army in 1964. His death is
its heaviest setback of the war and could push the already
weakened rebels to the negotiating table.


Colombia's military had said on Saturday that intelligence
sources showed Marulanda died in late March, and the news was
confirmed by rebel commander Timoleon Jimenez in a video played
on Venezuelan-based television channel Telesur on Sunday.


"Our maximum leader, Manuel Marulanda Velez, died of a
heart attack on March 26... in the arms of his companion,"
Jimenez said, dressed in combat fatigues and standing before a
Colombian flag in an unknown location.


Alfonso Cano, already a member of its seven-man leadership,
will replace Marulanda as its chief, the FARC said. Cano, 59, a
former student activist, is known as more of a political leader
and negotiator than a hardline military strategist.


Born into a peasant family, Marulanda rose from a humble
businessman who once sold candy and chopped wood to become the
commander of the FARC as it evolved from a ragtag army into
Latin America's largest and oldest-surviving insurgency.


Marulanda, whose real name was Pedro Antonio Marin and was
nicknamed "Sureshot' by comrades, was one of Colombia's most
hunted men.


He was a reclusive figure and was last seen in public more
than five years ago, in combat fatigues and with his trademark
sweat towel slung over his shoulder.


Under his command, the FARC grew into a 17,000-member force
controlling large parts of the country. His rebels carried out
massacres in villages and ambushed army patrols, often using
home-made landmines and missiles crafted from gas cylinders.


They have turned to kidnapping, extortion and the cocaine
trade to finance operations against the military and outlawed
paramilitary groups in a vicious conflict in which all sides
have committed human rights atrocities.


At least 40,000 people have been killed in the last decade
alone.


But violence has eased as President Alvaro Uribe's
U.S.-backed security campaign weakened the FARC. Several top
bosses were killed over the last year and a female commander
deserted this month, saying the rebels were "cracking".


"With his death, a chapter of the FARC has closed," Defense
Minister Juan Manuel Santos said on Sunday. "He was someone who
has been stuck in the past and always opposed peace."


REBEL SETBACKS


Marulanda's death could fuel more desertions and sharpen
divisions inside the FARC leadership, where Cano is seen as
more open to peace negotiations than hardline, military-wing
leader Jorge Briceno, also known as "Monojojoy".


"He was an authority figure ... what he did was solve the
disputes among the younger commanders," Pablo Casas, an analyst
at the Security and Democracy think tank in Bogota, said of
Maralunda. "He was the one who had the final word."


The FARC's No. 2 commander and key negotiator, Raul Reyes,
was killed in a Colombian army operation inside Ecuador in
early March. That raid sparked a regional crisis between U.S.
ally Colombia and the left-wing governments of neighboring
Ecuador and Venezuela.


Karina, the senior rebel who deserted this month, said she
had not been in contact with the leadership for two years,
underscoring the communications difficulties among remaining
commanders hiding out in Colombia's jungles and mountains.


The FARC, which now has around 9,000 fighters, remains a
potent subversive force in some rural parts. But the rebels are
unpopular, especially in the cities, and Uribe has won broad
support for his tough campaign against the rebels.


"Thank the Lord he's been taken away," Bogota car park
attendant Luis Ortiz said of Marulanda's death. "He and his
cronies did a lot of damage to Colombia."


The FARC still holds scores of hostages, including
French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S.
contract workers, and says it wants to exchange them for jailed
guerrilla fighters.


It freed six hostages earlier this year but attempts to
reach a deal over more kidnap victims are deadlocked over rebel
demands that Uribe demilitarize an area the size of New York
City in southern Colombia to start talks.


Prompted by government rewards, Uribe says some commanders
are already offering to surrender with hostages, including
Betancourt. She has been held in jungle camps since her
kidnapping in 2002 while campaigning for the presidency.

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