By Luis Jaime Acosta and Jack Kimball
BOGOTA, Nov 15 (Reuters) – Colombia’s FARC guerrillas named Timoleon Jimenez, a hardliner known as Timochenko, as their new leader after the Andean country’s armed forces killed his predecessor, a rebel statement said on Tuesday
In one of the largest strikes against the guerrillas, Colombian forces killed FARC leader Alfonso Cano on Nov. 4. But the insurgents vowed to fight on, dampening hopes that his death might bring the nation closer to peace.
Timochenko, who received military and political training in Cuba and Russia, is considered more uncompromising than other rival commanders of the FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, according to Colombian intelligence services.
“We want to inform you that Comrade Timoleon Jimenez, with a unanimous vote by his companions in the secretariat, was designated on Nov. 5 as the new commander of the FARC,” said the statement, published on a news website called the Bolivarian Press Agency that often carries rebel messages.
Timochenko, 52, has been a member of the seven-member ruling secretariat since the early 1990s and a fighter in the FARC since the 1970s. He is believed to operate in the Norte de Santander province on the border with Venezuela.
The FARC’s leadership choice could heat up the conflict on the northeastern provinces, where Timochenko and another secretariat member are believed to operate, if thousands of troops that were looking for Cano were moved to those areas.
Any worsening of the conflict along the borders coupled with possible uncomfortable questions of regional nations’ role in the conflict arising from seized files of Cano could put more pressure on President Juan Manuel Santos, who has greatly improved ties with Venezuela and Ecuador since 2010.
Timochenko, who like his predecessor Cano sports a beard and glasses, is in charge of the Bloque Magdalena Medio, which has about 800 combatants, intelligence services say.
The rebels must still name a new member of the secretariat to replace the vacancy left by Cano’s death.
The FARC once had as many as 17,000 combatants who moved almost freely across great swathes of jungle and mountains. But it has been battered by more than a decade of U.S.-funded attacks that have depleted and demoralized its fighting force.
Experts said that the FARC’s strategy would not likely change under Timochenko.
“I don’t think this is going to mean a big change for the FARC … There’s much more continuity than change. The big challenge is maintaining internal cohesion,” independent security analyst Alfredo Rangel said.
“Timochenko is not one of the most charismatic figures in the FARC. He’s been an obscure bureaucrat, in charge of intelligence and counter-intelligence matters, and less at the forefront of political issues.” (Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Cynthia Osterman and Paul Simao)