QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Colombian rebels killed an Ecuadorean army lieutenant and wounded a corporal Thursday in more than four hours of combat that spanned a river between the two countries, military leaders said.
Such armed encounters are extremely rare along what is a porous and lightly populated border, and it was the first known instance of an Ecuadorean soldier killed by a Colombian irregular.
The fighting broke out about dawn when Ecuadorean soldiers encountered the rebels on their side of the San Miguel river, which delineates Ecuador’s border with a coca-producing region of Colombia, and demanded they surrender, Ecuadorean officials said.
“But they were answered with bullets,” said the armed forces chief, Gen. Leonardo Barreiro. He said another group of rebels on the river’s Colombian side attacked with rifle-launched grenades and sniper fire.
Barreiro said five rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, were killed. But the military did not present any corpses.
Colombian rebels regularly cross into Ecuador to flee pursuing troops and have occasionally clashed with its troops.
Gen. Edison Narvaez said the dead lieutenant, Diego Maldonado, was shot in the head while pursuing a fleeing rebel and the wounded corporal had shrapnel in his head and shoulder but “was out of danger.”
He said the combat began at dawn and lasted four hours, with about 120 Ecuadorean special forces soldiers taking part.
Officials said the rebels were from the FARC’s 48th Front, which Colombian authorities say is funded largely by the cocaine trade.
FARC rebels easily blend into the civilian population of Ecuador’s Sucumbios state, where the combat occurred in the town of Puerto Mestanza. It has long been home to the Western Hemisphere’s largest concentration of refugees and has also provided refuge for Colombian rebels.
Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino asked Colombia to step up its border security “because these acts indicate they are insufficient.”
“We need a greater presence and care by Colombia’s government on its border so there are no more incursions by irregular forces on our territory,” he said at a joint news conference with Barreiro.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said in an interview with The Associated Press in Bogota that he mourned Maldonado’s death.
In March 2008, Colombian security forces crossed into the same region of Ecuador and killed a top FARC commander, Raul Reyes, in one of several jungle camps that the rebels operated just across the border.
Colombian authorities complained at the time that Ecuador was harboring the FARC. They later provided video and electronic documents that they said proved the FARC had contributed to the 2006 campaign of Ecuador’s leftist president, Rafael Correa.
Correa condemned the cross-border raid and Colombia for violating his country’s territory.
Associated Press writers Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, and Libardo Cardona in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.