By Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian troops killed 33 FARC rebels on Wednesday in an oil-producing region close to the border with Venezuela, the government said, in one of the harshest blows against the drug-funded group in more than a year.
Ground troops supported by air strikes attacked fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia who were resting in the plains region of the northern Arauca province, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said. The FARC killed 11 soldiers close by just days earlier.
The operation forms part of a new military strategy to battle the Marxist guerrillas by destroying their key armed and financial units, marking a shift from the previous focus of tracking down and killing their leaders.
"I am determined to achieve the necessary peace we need in our country," President Juan Manuel Santos said in an address in Bogota. "We won't lower our guard, we'll keep advancing with a rifle in one hand and the constitution in the other."
Fifty-one FARC fighters have been captured or killed in the last 24 hours as part of the new strategy, known as Sword of Honor war plan, Pinzon said during a press conference. One of the captured fighters is sought for extradition by the United States on drug trafficking charges.
The operation was carried out by a group called Task Force Quiron, one of at least 11 military units created to dismantle key rebel units involved in cocaine smuggling, arms trafficking, illegal mineral mining and manufacturing of bombs.
Pinzon pledged to keep up the fight against the FARC, as well as the smaller ELN guerrilla group, drug traffickers and crime gangs that evolved in recent years from demobilized paramilitary groups.
PUMMELING THE REBELS
Government troops have attacked the FARC relentlessly over the past decade helped by billions of dollars in U.S. military aid, pushing them deeper into inhospitable jungle and mountain ranges. The offensive has halved the FARC's fighting force to about 8,000 and killed several of its key commanders.
"We are looking for the (FARC units) that have done the most damage to the country," Pinzon said. "These are substantial and permanent hits."
Santos, facing increased pressure to seek an end to the conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people over the decades, has refused any peace talks unless the group frees all captives, stops kidnapping and ceases all attacks on civilian and military targets.
The FARC, Latin America's longest-running insurgency, has survived various tactics by different governments since it was founded by Manuel Marulanda in 1964.
A massive influx of drug money, mostly from cocaine trafficking, breathed new life into the group before former President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002 and launched a major intelligence and military offensive against the rebels.
Still, the FARC remains a formidable force, attacking towns and oil workers and seeking to hobble key industries like mining and energy.
The FARC, considered a terrorist group by the United States and Europe, has stepped up attacks in recent months in a bid to slow the nation's economic growth and sow fear in Colombians as they travel.
The FARC said last month it would abandon its decades-long policy of kidnapping for ransom and free military and police hostages it holds in jungle camps. The liberation could begin as soon as Monday, former Senator Piedad Cordoba said.
(Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Cynthia Osterman)