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Monday, April 6, 1998 Published at 23:26 GMT 00:26 UK



Despatches

Columbian rebel leader dies

A top guerrilla leader has died in the mountains of Colombia.

Manuel Perez, a former Spanish priest to the commander in chief of the Marxist National Liberation Army, had been fighting for nearly thirty years, but apparently died of a liver disease.

From Bogota, Timothy Ross reports:

The first information on the death of Manuel Perez came from a guerrilla radio message intercepted by the police, but it was soon confirmed by leaders of the National Liberation Army, the ELN, to a group of television journalists they had kidnapped.

ELN spokesmen told the reporters that he died in February of Hepatitis B virus, and that he has been replaced as commander by another hardliner, Nicolas Rodriguez Bautista, but that this does not mean any change in their policies or strategies.

The ELN was founded in 1964 by pro-Cuban student and peasant leaders, and Father Perez joined in 1969.

He had been a radical worker priest in Spain, France, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, from where he was expelled before coming to Colombia for the first time in 1968.

His extreme radicalism here also led to his expulsion, but he returned a year later to join the rebels.

The ELN is the second-largest guerrilla organisation in Colombia and controls large areas of the centre, north and east of the country, specialising in ambushing army patrols, attacking the mining and oil industries and kidnapping businessmen and cattle farmers.

Under Father Perez, the ELN became even more extremist and has repeatedly been accused of human rights violations, including the torture and execution of prisoners.

It has splintered several times, with as much as one third of its members deserting.

A young woman former guerrilla told me her group decided to leave because, she claimed, Father Perez was rigid, brutal and unintelligent.

In recent weeks, the ELN had made contact with government representatives about possible peace talks, then broke them off again, and most observers believe this is only a tactic to keep the authorities off balance.

The Hepatitis B virus kills more people in the world than AIDS and is most usually transmitted sexually, through unsafe blood transfusions or by contaminated drug injections.
 





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