Senior Colombian Rebel Commander Seized in Ecuador

A senior commander of Colombia's Marxist rebel army FARC was arrested in a hospital in neighboring Ecuador, the highest-ranked member of the guerrilla group to be captured in four decades of war with the government.

Simon Trinidad, a commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC, was arrested by Colombian and Ecuadorean authorities late on Friday while he was being treated in the capital Quito for a flesh-eating insect-borne disease, the Colombian army said.

"It was a joint operation between the Colombian and Ecuadorean authorities. We had been tracking him for months and he arrived at a health center, apparently sick, and we captured him," a Colombian police commander told Reuters.

The capture of Trinidad, a former negotiator in failed talks with the government, is a huge boost for the U.S.-backed military, which has been criticized for failing to capture or kill senior rebel leaders in a war that claims the lives of thousands of people every year.

In Quito, a handcuffed but defiant Trinidad screamed, "Long Live the FARC!" as he was escorted onto a helicopter by dozens of heavily armed Ecuadorean police.

Trinidad, who had an $820,000 reward on his head, was handed over to Colombian authorities on the border. He was due to arrive in the capital Bogota later on Saturday.

President Alvaro Uribe, a close U.S. ally who has stepped up military spending and launched an offensive against rebels, pledged to push forward until "terror is totally dismantled."

"This proves terror will never rule," Uribe, who has often criticized army generals in public for failing to produce more results in the battlefield, said in a speech to the nation.


Defense Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe, not related to the president, thanked the "government of the United States" for its cooperation. He did not elaborate but Colombia's armed forces have received millions of dollars in military aid and intelligence from Washington in recent years.

Ecuadorean police gave a different account of the arrest, saying Trinidad was captured in a Quito street and was not carrying documents with him.

Trinidad's arrest comes on the heels of recent army killings of mid-level FARC commanders. While the well-spoken, balding Trinidad, 53, is not a member of the FARC's seven-member ruling secretariat, he is the most senior member of Latin America's largest rebel army ever to be captured.

The FARC, which says it is fighting for socialist reforms, has been on a tactical retreat since Uribe took office in 2002, pushed back into jungle and mountains.

Trinidad, whose real name is Ricardo Palmera, is an oddity in the FARC, an overwhelmingly peasant army of 17,000. The son of a wealthy cattle ranching family and a former banker, he hung out with former Colombian President Andres Pastrana in his youth, socializing in bullfights, watching movies together and even dating the same girls.

In an interview in 2002, Trinidad, who studied economics, told Reuters he became a guerrilla in 1987 because of his outrage at the enormous gaps in income in Colombia.

Officials said he was suffering from leishmaniasis, a flesh-eating disease spread by the sand fly in the jungle.

The FARC, created in 1964 by landless peasants, is led by Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda. Sureshot and the remaining six members of the FARC's top directorate are at large.

[Source:By Ibon Villelabeitia, Reuters, Bogota, Col, 03Jan04]

Proceso de paz en Colombia

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