No. 2 commander of Colombia's guerrillas killed

FARC commander Raul Reyes has been killed in combat against Colombian forces in Ecuador, according to Colombia's defence minister.

A top commander of Colombia's left-wing guerrillas has been killed in combat, Colombian Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos said on Saturday.

Raul  Reyes, the No. 2 commander of Colombia's main guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, died in fighting two kilometres across the border in neighbouring Ecuador, Santos told reporters at a news conference in Bogota.

"This is the strongest blow dealt to the terrorist group to date," he said. Known by its Spanish initials, FARC, the group has been waging war against the Colombian government for more than 40 years.

A total of 17 rebels and one soldier died in the operation, which involved Colombia's army, police and air force. Columbia said an air strike killed Reyes.

Reyes, 59, whose real name is Luis Edgar Devia Silva, was considered a contender to take over the FARC. He came into the FARC from the Communist Party, headed the guerrillas' international front and was responsible for promoting the rebel movement across the globe.

He was the fourth member of the FARC killed in the past year.

It wasn't immediately clear how Reyes' death would influence efforts to negotiate the release of militant-held hostages, including French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. defence contractors.

In France, those linked to Betancourt expressed fear Reyes' death could affect the hostages.

"The international community has its eyes locked on" the FARC, Herve Marro, spokesman for the support committee for Betancourt, said by telephone. "It's in their interest that not the least hair ... of a hostage be touched."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy repeated his call that Betancourt be freed "without delay." He urged all concerned to emphasize humanitarian considerations and take advantage of the dynamic created by the liberation of four hostages last week.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa said his country would launch an investigation into how the FARC was operating in its territory and how exactly the battle with Colombian troops went down. 

With files from the Associated Press