INTERVIEW-Colombia's war with rebels may intensify - minister

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Thursday, 30 September 2010 08:12 GMT

* Colombia to keep up intensity in fight against rebels

* Minister rules out attacks outside of Colombia

By Luis Jaime Acosta

BOGOTA, Sept 30 (Reuters) - Colombia&${esc.hash}39;s offensive against leftist FARC rebels, including the recent killing of the top guerrilla military commander, may provoke an intensification of the 45-year-old war, the nation&${esc.hash}39;s defense minister said.

Latin America&${esc.hash}39;s longest-running insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has been battered to remote, jungle hideouts by a U.S.-backed offensive launched in 2002, and rebels continue to be hammered by Colombia&${esc.hash}39;s increased intelligence capacity and mobility.

"We&${esc.hash}39;re entering into a definitive and defining part of these almost 50 years of violence that could be very painful, we hope that it&${esc.hash}39;s not too much, we&${esc.hash}39;re on maximum alert ... we need to keep our guard up," Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera told Reuters in an interview late on Wednesday.

"We have to tell Colombians and the international community the truth that this stage could be very painful, but it&${esc.hash}39;s necessary to intensify (the offensive) to finish the job."

In one of the strongest blows to the Marxist FARC rebels, Colombian forces last week killed top rebel military chief Mono Jojoy in a raid on his jungle camp. [ID:nN23139058]

The FARC is at its weakest in decades after eight years of a security campaign that has killed top guerrillas and pushed rebels out of strongholds -- the group is heavily involved in drug running.

Rivera, a 47-year-old lawyer, ruled out attacks against rebels hiding outside of Colombia. Under former President Alvaro Uribe, Bogota had strained ties with Andean neighbors after Colombia bombed a FARC camp in 2008 in Ecuador.

"We&${esc.hash}39;re going to operate through international cooperation, we&${esc.hash}39;re going to operate trusting in the words that were strongly expressed after President (Juan Manuel) Santos&${esc.hash}39; inauguration," he said.

Rivera&${esc.hash}39;s comments implicitly referred to statements made by Venezuelan President Hugh Chavez -- whom the outgoing Colombian government had accused of harboring rebels in his territory -- about not permitting illegal armed groups on Venezuelan soil.

Days after forces killed the FARC&${esc.hash}39;s military chief, the rebels said that they wanted a chance for peace negotiations. [ID:nN24214004]

The Santos administration has ruled out talks until the rebels stop attacks and release hostages.

The guerrillas, however, are still a force in rural areas and have stepped up attacks over the last month, killing 22 police officers. Santos, who took office on Aug. 7, has vowed to continue his predecessor&${esc.hash}39;s hard-line security approach, which helped spur a five-fold growth in foreign investment.

"Our willingness to intensify (the fight) and not to negotiate is unwavering. That we&${esc.hash}39;re clear on. How far away is the end, only God knows. This doesn&${esc.hash}39;t depend only on us, it also depends on what decisions the rebels make," Rivera said. (Writing by Jack Kimball; Editing by Paul Simao)

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