Bogota: Twelve bodyguards for the commander of the leftist FARC rebels have been killed in an overnight military raid, and 10 Colombian soldiers died in separate clashes with the jungle-based guerrillas, officials have said.
The air force, army and federal police launched the raid under cover of darkness on the mountainside encampment where Guillermo Leon Saenz -- who goes by "Alfonso Cano" and heads the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) -- was holed up, the military said.
The dead rebels included four women and eight men tasked with protecting Cano, who took the reins of Latin America`s oldest insurgency in 2008 after the FARC`s founder and longtime chief Manuel Marulanda died from an apparent heart attack.
The assault began around 1:00 am (0600 GMT) in a rural section outside the town of Planadas in the central Colombian mountains.
Among the women killed was Magaly Grannobles, also known as "Marleny Rondon," who headed one of the units responsible for Cano`s security.
"This is a major setback for the guerrillas, because this terrorist, who has assassinated about 70 Colombian soldiers and police officers, was very important to Cano," said General Freddy Padilla, commander of Colombia`s military forces.
Separately, 10 soldiers died in an early morning battle in Arauca, an eastern province bordering Venezuela, the military said, revising upward its earlier toll after four wounded soldiers succumbed to their wounds during an evacuation.
The clashes came a day after three separate attacks attributed to the FARC left three police officers, two soldiers and two civilians dead.
The FARC -- the country`s strongest and oldest guerrilla group -- has been fighting the government since the 1960s. It now includes some 7,500 to 10,000 fighters, according to estimates.
In October 2009, at least eight FARC rebels were killed in a major army raid in the same region where Cano was believed to have taken refuge, officials said.
Upon taking over from Marulanda in 2008, Cano wrote to his followers, calling for more attacks in their war against the Bogota government as well as cultivating "friends and aides" of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Intercepted by Bogota`s army intelligence, Cano`s email also urged rebels to lay more land mines and buy more weapons, including missiles and communications equipment to harass government forces, with five or six million dollars from rebel coffers.
The new tactics were aimed at raising the public visibility of the FARC, known for its high-profile kidnappings.
In July 2008 the group, released Franco-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt after six years in captivity, along with three Americans and 11 Colombian soldiers and policemen.
FARC rebels, active on nearly half of Colombian territory, still hold at least 19 soldiers and police officers who they hope to swap for some 500 guerrillas in Colombian jails.