Colombian troops have killed nine dissidents formerly of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in an air raid, the first since the group’s former leaders rejected a 2016 peace agreement and announced a return to arms.
Few details of the operation were released, but Duque said the dead included a rebel known by his alias, Gildardo Cucho. The fighter was part of a group that former FARC Commander Luciano Marin, known by his alias Ivan Marquez, was looking to recruit to his new rebel movement, Duque said.
“Thanks to strategic, meticulous, impeccable and rigorous work, Gildardo Cucho, a leader in this organisation, was killed,” Duque said in a televised statement from the city of Sincelejo.
“This criminal was dedicated to drug trafficking, kidnapping, the intimidation of social leaders and he was expected to be part of this threatening new group which yesterday presented itself to the country as a new rebel group – which it isn’t because it’s a narco-terrorist gang,” he said.
The operation was “a clear message” to the group to lay down their weapons, the Colombian leader added.
Minister of Defence Guillermo Botero, who said the operation had taken place in the San Vicente del Caguan region, wrote on Twitter: “The criminals are warned: they surrender or they will be defeated.”
The raid came a day after Marin announced he would resume fighting, accusing Duque’s government of betraying a 2016 peace agreement under which most of the FARC’s 7,000 fighters disarmed after half a century of conflict.
Marin, who was the FARC’s chief negotiator, read a long manifesto in a video surrounded by a group of 20 heavily-armed rebels from what he said was a clandestine camp in Colombia’s eastern jungles but which authorities contend was inside Venezuela – long a safe haven for the rebel group.
He added that his forces would coordinate with Colombia’s last active rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), “and those comrades who have not folded up their flags.”
The United States, a key ally of Duque’s conservative government, denounced Marin and his allies.
“We strongly repudiate recent calls by some individuals to abandon the FARC’s commitments under the 2016 peace accord,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
The peace accord has come under pressure on various fronts, including the murder of hundreds of former rebels and human rights activists, delays in funding for economic efforts by former combatants, and deep political polarisation.
More than 260,000 people have been killed and millions displaced during Colombia’s decades-long conflict between the government, rebel groups, crime gangs and right-wing paramilitaries.
Dissidents from the FARC include some rebels who refused outright to demobilise under the peace deal and others who initially backed the process before returning to fight. Their forces are estimated to number more than 2,200.
Many are thought to be based in Venezuela, where President Nicolas Maduro has said former rebels commanders were welcome.
On Thursday, Duque said he would send a special army unit “with reinforced intelligence, investigation and mobility capabilities” to hunt down Marin and other holdouts.
“Colombians must be clear that we are not facing a new guerrilla, but facing the criminal threats of a gang of narco-terrorists who have the shelter and support of the dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro,” Duque said, referring to the Venezuelan president.
He announced a three billion peso (about $882,000) reward for the arrest of those appearing in the video featuring Marin.