The Colombian government announced Friday the death of the top leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group during a bombing mission. 

The death of the FARC's bookish 63-year-old leader Alfonso Cano on Friday came hours after his nearby camp was bombed. The bombing was celebrated by President Juan Manuel Santos as "the hardest blow to this organization in its entire history."

"I want to send a message to each and every member of this organization: demobilize. Because if you don't, as we've said so many times and as we've shown, you will end up in jail or in a tomb," Santos said in a brief televised address.

"Viva Colombia!" he exclaimed.

The killing is anything but a fatal blow, however, to the nearly half-century-old peasant-based group.

Financed mostly by drug trafficking, it is comprised largely of peasants with few other opportunities in a country where land ownership is highly concentrated in the hands of a few.

Cano, 63, was killed in combat in a remote area of the southwestern state of Cauca along with four other rebels an hour before dusk, about 200 yards from the bunker he apparently fled after the morning bombing, said Adm. Roberto García, the Colombian navy chief.

He had shaven off his trademark beard and his thick glasses were not found with him, García said. Officials said Cano was positively identified by fingerprint.

Officials did not say whether Cano was armed when he died, how many bullet wounds he had or where. Authorities released a photograph of Cano's head in which his face did not appear disfigured.

García said five rebels also were captured while another five or so fled.

Cano had been the top target of Colombia's armed forces authorities since September 2010, when they killed the insurgency's military chief, Jorge Briceño, in a bombing raid in the southern Macarena massif.

Former President Andrés Pastrana, who knew Cano from failed 1998-2002 peace negotiations with the rebels, said the death "has to make the FARC think it's losing the war."

Troops found seven computers and 39 thumb drives in Cano's bunker as well as a stash of cash in currencies including U.S. dollars, euros and Colombian pesos, said Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón.

Cano's body was taken to Popayán, the Cauca state capital, where Santos and the entire military high command planned to fly Saturday.

The death of Cano, whose real name was Guillermo León Sáenz, does not signal the imminent demise of Latin America's last remaining leftist rebel army, analysts said.

"This is a blow to the FARC's morale," said Victor Ricardo, Pastrana's peace commissioner during the failed peace talks. "But by no means can people imagine that this can bring an end to the FARC."

The FARC, which is believed to number about 9,000, has a disciplined military hierarchy and someone is always in line to advance, he said.

Ricardo said the next leader could be rebels known as Iván Márquez or Timochenko. Both are members of the FARC secretariat.

The rebels' leadership has suffered a series of withering blows beginning in March 2008, when the FARC's foreign minister, Raúl Reyes, was killed in a bombing raid on a rebel camp across the border in Ecuador. That raid yielded authorities a treasure trove of information from computers and digital storage.

That same month, the FARC's revered co-founder, Manuel Marulanda, died in a mountain hideout of a heart attack. Cano, the rebels' chief ideologist, was named to succeed him.

Several other top commanders were subsequently killed and rebel desertions, including of midlevel cadres, reached record levels.

And in July 2008, commandos posing as international aid workers rescued former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three U.S. military contractors and 11 others in an elaborate and bloodless ruse.

That all happened when Santos was defense minister under Alvaro Uribe. The two built military success on billions of dollars of U.S. aid, including training and close intelligence-sharing.

Santos took office as president in August 2010 and was buoyed by the death of Briceño, who was better known by his nickname Mono Jojoy. Santos also began tightening the noose on Cano; several times reports emerged that Cano had nearly been caught.

The FARC has nevertheless been regrouping in recent months, and rural violence has been on an uptick.

Ironically, Cano had in a New Year's message praised the president for an initiative that later became enacted as law to redress and return stolen land to some 4 million victims of Colombia's long-running conflict.

Most of those had been victims of far-right militias known as paramilitaries that were created in the 1980s to counter kidnapping and extortion by the FARC, which was formed in 1964. The paramilitaries ended up evolving into criminal gangs who murdered suspected rebel sympathizers and trade unionists and have been blamed for most deaths in Colombia's dirty war.

Cano released a number of video messages after Santos took office in which he urged the president to engage in dialogue with the rebels.

But Santos insisted Cano needed to make a peace gesture, such as halting all kidnappings. The FARC has not done so, and its fighters were blamed for two attacks last month that killed more than 20 soldiers.

The group also holds an unknown number of kidnap victims, apparently including four Chinese oil workers seized in June.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press. 

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