BOGOTA, Colombia Most Colombians can't remember a time when the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia were not a major force to be reckoned with.
But the death of the FARC's founding leader Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, coupled with recent military setbacks, has many wondering whether the 44-year-old insurgency might now change course and possibly be more willing to accept government conditions for a prisoner swap.
"The end of the FARC is in sight," Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told reporters Sunday after a senior rebel confirmed that Marulanda died March 26 of a heart attack.
Santos quickly added: "We are winning but we haven't yet won." He and other Colombian leaders appealed to the rebels to put down their weapons and talk peace.
But the FARC, which Colombia's military says has some 9,000 fighters, was characteristically defiant.
"We will continue our work," rebel commander Timoleon Jimenez, alias Timochenko, said in a video message, "profoundly optimistic that we will move forward in spite of this adversity."
He said the FARC's is a "struggle for political power, the struggle for a socially just society and the struggle for socialism."
In March, guerrilla commander Raul Reyes and another member of the rebels' seven-man ruling Secretariat were killed, and last weekend a female leader who held near mythic status in the group defected.
But even as the rebels, who are listed by both the U.S. and the European Union as "terrorists," have suffered setbacks, they remain potent. Across the country, clashes with police and the army are an almost daily occurrence.
Whether the FARC heads in a new direction could depend on Alfonso Cano, a bearded and bespectacled, longtime ideologue who was designated the group's new leader.
Adam Isacson, Colombia analyst for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for International Policy, says the group is at a "fork-in-the-road moment".
"For about the past six years, you've seen nothing different, no changes in political strategy," he said. "It's hard to say in what direction the FARC will go, but it seems certain there will be a different direction."
Isacson considers it a positive sign that the FARC's leadership did not choose as its new chief a member of the rebels' military wing, which is thought to be more resistant to the idea of talks with the government.
Cano, whose real name is Guillermo Saenz Vargas, studied anthropology at one of Colombia's most prestigious universities before joining the Young Communists and is thought to have entered the FARC's ranks in the late 1970s. He is believed to be about 50 years old.
Two weeks ago, President Alvaro Uribe called Cano a "terrorist who poses as a philosopher."
Cano was placed in charge of the FARC's clandestine political arm, the Clandestine Communist Party of Colombia, when it was created in 2000. The party continues to have a presence in Colombian cities, particularly among university students.
Santos held out the hope Sunday that the FARC's new leader would be more inclined to negotiate peace.
"This is a message to Alfonso Cano," he said. "The government has always kept open the door of peace."
The government has refused, however, to meet the rebels' demand that it clear troops from a New York City-size swath of southwest Colombia for talks on a swap that would free hundreds of imprisoned rebels.
The FARC unilaterally freed six hostages in January and February, with the mediation of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, but says it will release no more unless that condition is met.
After initial unconfirmed reports of Marulanda's death, Uribe announced Saturday that he was willing to offer rebels who free hostages "conditional liberty" and passage abroad.
He said some had "called to tell the government they are disposed to desert and free hostages beginning with Dr. Ingrid Betancourt" but want guarantees they won't be jailed.
Uribe said the government would ask the judiciary to grant such people "conditional liberty."
The government says the FARC holds 700 hostages, including three U.S. military contractors seized in February 2003 and Betancourt, a French-Colombian kidnapped the previous year while campaigning for president.
Prospects for their release were complicated Thursday by the chief prosecutor's announcement that he was opening investigations into possible FARC links with five Colombians, two Ecuadoreans, an American and a Venezuelan.
The investigation is based on documents found in laptops seized at Reyes' camp in Ecuador.
Many of those named, including opposition lawmaker Sen. Piedad Cordoba, have worked as official mediators trying to negotiate a deal between the government and the rebels.
Cordoba, who helped Chavez broker the six hostages' release earlier this year, on Sunday called Marulanda a "political man with a very serious ideological makeup, very committed to peace in Colombia."Betancourt's mother and sister issued a joint statement Sunday asking Cano, whom they described as "an illustrious and progressive man," to free Betancourt and three other Colombian civilian hostages.
Associated Press Writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report.