Government forces have killed Alfonso Cano, the leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC], during combat operations, the country’s defence ministry has said.
Juan Carlos Pinzon, the defence minister, said on Saturday that Cano was killed after government forces bombed a FARC jungle hideout in the southwestern Cauca region on Friday.
The death of Cano, 63, who took over leadership of the rebels after their founder died in 2008, would be a strategic victory for President Juan Manuel Santos, who came to office last year promising to keep up a hardline stance against the rebels.
The government had offered up to $5m for information that would lead to his capture.
Pictures of his dead body, with his trademark beard shaven off, have been broadcast on television.
"It is the most devastating blow that this group has suffered in its history," Santos said in a brief televised address to the nation.
"I want to send a message to each and every member of that organisation: 'demobilise' ... or otherwise you will end up in a prison or in a tomb. We will achieve peace."
'Cano is dead!'
On the outskirts of the capital Bogota, revellers spilled into the street, dancing and chanting with joy: "Cano is dead!"
Al Jazeera's Latin America editor, Lucia Newman, reporting from the Nicaraguan capital, Managua, quoted Colombian media reports that said another top member of the directorate of FARC has been captured but the name has not been released.
|Colombia's president has said FARC suffered the most devastating blow in its history [Reuters]
"It is very much possible that the government not only got their top man but also another high-value target," she said.
The death of the bespectacled rebel commander, a former student activist and communist youth member, followed the killing late last year of top FARC military commander, Mono Jojoy, in a bombardment and assault on his camp.
The strike against Cano underscored how Colombia's military can now attack rebel leaders deep in mountains and jungles.
Cano went from being a middle-class youth in Bogota to the top FARC leader after taking part in peace talks in neighbouring Venezuela and Mexico during the 1990s.
His death will further damage the rebel group's ability to regroup and co-ordinate high-profile attacks, and might finally help bring Latin America's longest running civil war to an end.
"It is a huge blow to the morale of the FARC. However, it is difficult to estimate how devastating it [Cano's death] would be," Newman said.
"You have to imagine, they were prepared for that. President Santos had said in July that the army had surrounded them.
"In last few years they have been losing out support among the public. Even Cuban leader Fidel Castro once told FARC leaders that time for revolutionary change through armed struggle was over.
"Their involvement in large-scale kidnappings and connections to drug gangs made them very, very unpopular among the Colombian people."
Once a powerful force controlling large swathes of Colombia, the FARC is at its weakest in decades.
Desertions and military operations have whittled down rebel ranks to about 7,000 fighters, but the FARC has survived for more than 40 years, and still has a cadre of experienced mid-level commanders.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Julian Torres, a columnist for Colombia Reports news website, said: "In terms of losing Cano, the ideological base for the group for past 21 years, this is pretty big.
"They are weakened, but we must know that they are a guerilla army and can adapt and do prepare.
"If they are somewhat aligned to their ideological base they had during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. If there is no one to replace him [Cano] ideologically, then who do we negotiate with?"
"They are weakened, but we must know that they are a guerilla army and can adapt and do prepare"
Julian Torres, columnist for Colombia Reports news website
"After the Colombian military started modernising with the help of US, with billions of dollars being invested, the only way to survive was to increase its [FARC] narco-trafficking abilities.
"We definitely see their involvement in narco trade, but we don’t see them, for sure, fully disengaged from ideology. They may be engaged in narco-trafficking just for the sake of survival as a means to an end."
FARC is on US and European lists of terrorist organisations.
The group was founded in 1964, when it declared its aim to to overthrow the government through through an armed struggle and create a Marxist state.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies