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'Timonchenko' takes helm of Colombia’s FARC rebels

The new leader of Colombia's oldest rebel organization is said to be an astute and hardened guerrilla, who commands the group's intelligence apparatus and is suspected of having deep ties in neighboring Venezuela.

Rodrigo Londono, also known as "Timoleon Jimenez" or "Timochenko," was named the new commander of the embattled FARC guerrillas on Tuesday - less than two weeks after the Colombian military hunted down and killed its leader, Alfonso Cano.

In a statement released on the Bolivarian Press Agency, the FARC Secretariat said Timochenko's appointment was unanimous and that it remained committed to overthrowing the government.

The FARC, or the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, have been fighting since 1964 and controlled huge swaths of the country in the 1980s and 1990s, but have suffered stunning setbacks over the last decade. When Cano was killed in the southern province of Cauca on Nov. 4, President Juan Manuel Santos called it one of the most decisive blows in the group's history.

He also called on FARC soldiers to lay down their arms and seek a negotiated settlement.

But analysts said that's not likely to happen anytime soon. Timochenko is seen as an ideologically committed hardliner - albeit more flexible than his predecessor, said Antonio Lopez, the president of Corporacion Arco Iris, a nonprofit that studies Colombia's civil conflict.

"But this does represent a sense of continuity in the FARC," he said "We're not going to see them breakdown and negotiate over Cano's body. At least not anytime soon."

Thought to number about 9,000, the FARC have changed their tactics and rarely face the military directly, Lopez said. Now, the smaller groups rely on hit-and-run ambushes, sabotaging public infrastructure and attacking soft military targets.

That has allowed the FARC to stage something of a resurgence. During the first half of 2011, there were 1,115 FARC attacks - up 10 percent versus last year.

Timochenko is thought to have joined the FARC in 1982, and quickly soared through the ranks to become a member of the Secretariat just seven years later, said Maria Victoria Duque, a conflict scholar and the deputy director of Razon Publica online magazine. She said he is one of the second-generation of FARC that are "no longer old rural guerrillas" but who are well traveled and were educated abroad.

Timochenko's last turn in the limelight came in 2008 when he announced that FARC founder Manuel "Tirofijo" Marulanda had died and that Cano was taking his place. With a salt-and-pepper beard and glasses, Timochenko is seeing punching his finger into the air as he virtually shouts at the camera.

The government believed the video was shot in Venezuela. And emails recovered in 2008 from the laptop of FARC's then No. 2, Raul Reyes, suggested Timochenko was a key liaison with Venezuelan authorities.

Venezuela has denied that it ever knowingly harbored the FARC, and the evidence from the laptops was never used in Colombian courts because the chain of custody had been broken during their recovery.

But in those communications, Timochenko describes FARC bases inside Venezuelan territory since 1997 - before President Hugo Chavez took power, and talked about using the porous border to move troops from one bloc to another.

In a meeting with reporters shortly after Cano's death, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said that it would have to be "confirmed" whether or not Timochenko and other FARC leaders are taking refuge in Venezuela.

But he said that the once-strained relations between the two nations had improved and that Venezuela had proven that it is willing to capture and extradite FARC rebels. Timochenko is facing more than 100 arrest warrants issued for him, including for terrorism, kidnapping and aggravated homicide.

"The ones that should be worried are the armed groups," Pinzon said. "As we increase our cooperation there is not going to be a safe place for them."

Duque agreed that the FARC is fractured and on the run, but said that the groups' ability to absorb the death of two commanders and a slew of officers over the last four years suggests there is no easy military option for the government.

Instead the Santos administration needs to push ahead with its efforts at land reform and rural development that would bring some balance to the country which, despite riches, has one of the highest income inequality rates in the world.

"You can kill all the FARC chiefs and commanders you want," she said. "But you still won't be able to talk about peace."

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