VILLAVICENCIO, Colombia (AP) — Colombia's military killed 36 rebels in the pre-dawn bombing Monday of a guerrilla camp, officials said, striking a second major blow in less than a week to the nation's main guerrilla force.
The attack in the Meta state municipality of Vista Hermosa, a traditional stronghold of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, comes just as the group known by its Spanish initials FARC says it is preparing to free its last prisoners.
Colombia's armed forces chief, Gen. Alejandro Navas, dismissed suggestions that the military attacks could delay the releases, saying the strikes fall within the "rules of the conflict." He said Monday's raid was several months in the planning.
Navas said the targeted rebels were undergoing training in an area where the Andes ridge meets Colombia's southeastern plains that is the base of the Bloque Oriental, the FARC's most potent cadre.
Commandos captured five insurgents, including three women, and seized weapons and computers, the military high command said.
President Juan Manuel Santos said three rebels were wounded.
"This operation isn't over," Navas said, emphasizing what he called its "highly strategic" nature.
Last week, the military killed 33 rebels in a similar air raid on another FARC stronghold, in Arauca state near the border with Venezuela.
Although Colombia's military brass has been stingy with operational details, the attacks follow a new strategy devised after they tracked down and killed the FARC's previous commander, Alfonso Cano, last year.
President Juan Manuel Santos said at the time that, given that the conflict was in what he called "its final phase," the military would go after the FARC's logistics and supplies.
The peasant-based rebels took up arms in 1964, demanding a more equitable distribution of wealth in a country where land ownership is highly concentrated.
They have engaged the government in several failed attempts at peace, most recently in 1999-2002. During those talks, the FARC was afforded a Switzerland-sized safe haven that included Vista Hermosa and it continued offensive operations elsewhere in Colombia.
The rebels have been increasingly battered over the past decade as Colombia professionalized its military with U.S. assistance, and were seeking peace talks even before Cano was killed.
The FARC has said it plans to release its last prisoners, 10 soldiers and police officers held for as long as 14 years, on April 2 and 4.
It also recently announced a halt to ransom kidnappings that have been a financing tool along with the cocaine trade.
Yet neither the insurgents, who have about 9,000 fighters, nor Colombia's armed forces have eased up on military operations.
The military's March 21 raid in Arauca came four days after rebels in the same region killed 11 soldiers in an attack.
Santos, who was defense minister in 2006-2009, said Monday that the armed forces "will not stop, will continue and will persevere" in their mission.
Military analyst Alfredo Rangel said the government's military offensive could prompt the FARC to delay the prisoner releases. Doing so, however, would badly "hurt its image before the nation and international community," he said.
An activist who has long worked for the freedom of security force members held by the FARC, and who is slated to receive the 10 captives, expressed optimism Monday.
"I don't think that because of these operations the releases will be canceled," said the activist, Marleny Orjuela.
Associated Press writers Cesar Garcia in Bogota, Colombia, and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.