The Colombian government on Saturday said it believes the founder of the nation's largest rebel group died in March of natural causes.
The Ministry of Defense said in a statement that information from "various military intelligence sources" had led it to conclude that Pedro Antonio Marin, 77, founder and leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, died March 26 of a heart attack.
The government provided no photos or forensic evidence of his death, which was first reported early Saturday by Semana magazine. The armed forces have not recovered the body of Marin, who was known by aliases Manuel Marulanda and "Sureshot," and who headed the FARC's seven-member secretariat.
But a member of President Alvaro Uribe's Cabinet said in an interview Saturday that intelligence sources heard in January that Marin was mortally ill. "Highly reliable" word came last week that Marin, one of the world's longest-lived rebels, had died in an eastern jungle state.
The minister spoke on the condition of anonymity because the Defense Ministry is the only authorized official source.
The government has said previously that it believed Marin was dead.
If correct this time, the death would represent a severe blow to the rebel leadership. Two other members of the FARC's secretariat were killed in March. A rebel leader known as Raul Reyes died March 1 in a Colombian bombing raid in Ecuador, and another known as Ivan Rios was killed days later by his own bodyguard.
Marin's successor as rebel leader is Guillermo Leon Saenz, alias "Alfonso Cano," according to the Defense Ministry.
In addition to the killing, capture and surrender of several mid- and top-level leaders, the FARC in recent years has lost territory and ranks, which have been thinned significantly by desertions, U.S. and Colombian military analysts believe.
"Marulanda was a mythic founder who gave cohesion to the rebels," said Alejo Vargas, a professor at National University of Colombia. "The challenge of his successor is to maintain that cohesion, but also lead the FARC to a negotiated resolution because the blows they have suffered the last two years show clearly that a military victory is a utopian hope."
Reporters asked Uribe, who held one of his regular community meetings in this lush sugar-cane growing region, whether he was sure Marin was dead. "We hope so," Uribe said, before referring reporters to the Defense Ministry's statement.
Earlier, Uribe told those attending the meeting that Colombia's armed forces see "light at the end of the tunnel" in their decades-long fight against the FARC, a conflict that has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of citizens.
Uribe also told reporters that his government recently received word from unnamed FARC leaders offering to surrender and give up hostages, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who has been in rebel custody since 2002. Uribe said the government would guarantee liberty to any rebel handing over hostages, possibly in France. Betancourt holds dual French-Colombian citizenship.
Marin founded the FARC in 1964 with fewer than 50 rebels. The force grew to about 20,000 earlier this decade and had the capital, Bogota, encircled in 2002, enabling rebel leaders to entertain hopes of taking power.
But Colombian armed forces have kept the FARC on the run in recent years, thanks in large part to Uribe's tough policies since he took office in 2002. Billions of dollars in U.S. military aid, technology and training have made the army a much more effective fighting force. FARC ranks now are thought to total less than 10,000 people.
The FARC gained popular support in the 1980s and part of the 1990s, but its turn toward drug trafficking, mass killings and kidnapping in the 1990s cost the rebel group much of its grass-roots appeal.
Analysts say Cano will have to reconcile opposing factions in the FARC. Secretariat member Ivan Marquez wants to negotiate a peace deal, but member Jorge Briceno wants to continue to fight.
"It doesn't surprise me that he is dead because we are on a roll," Vice President Francisco Santos told reporters. The death of his No. 2 commander Reyes "must have made his heart work very hard," Santos said.
Special correspondent Jenny Carolina Gonzalez contributed to this report.