The leader of a small but violent left-wing rebel group which has been terrorising rural communities in Paraguay has been killed in a clash with soldiers, officials say.
Osvaldo Villalba was the leader of the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP), which has carried out a string of killings and kidnappings in Paraguay.
Among those being held by the EPP is the country’s former Vice-President, Óscar Denis.
He was kidnapped in September 2020.
Army officials told reporters that soldiers had come across the rebels on Sunday after they heard gunshots while on patrol in Amambay province.
When they arrived at the scene of the shooting they found two indigenous people had been killed and a third injured by the rebels.
An army spokesman said it was not clear why the rebels had attacked the indigenous men but the two groups have in the past clashed over the recruitment of indigenous children by the EPP.
In the shoot-out between the army and the EPP which followed three rebels were killed. Only two of them have so far been identified.
Fingerprints taken from one of the bodies matched those held in police records for 39-year-old Osvaldo Villalba.
Osvaldo is the younger brother of Carmen Villalba – one of the founders of the EPP who is serving a lengthy jail sentence for the attempted murder of three police officers during a foiled jailbreak in 2004.
The other body was identified as that of Luciano “Luchi” Argüello, an EPP member whose two brothers Jonny and Benicio – also members of the guerrilla group – were found shot dead two years ago.
Paraguay’s President Mario Abdo on Sunday called on EPP members to hand themselves in.
“This is not a happy night for anyone,” he said. “This is not the way to fight for your ideals. As commander-in-chief, I make a call for peace.”
The killing of Osvaldo Villalba is a heavy blow to the EPP, which has been operating in a cattle-rich region of Paraguay.
The group finances itself through kidnappings and extortion as it claims to be fighting the oligarchy.
As well as former Vice-President Denis, the group is also holding Félix Urbeita, a rancher it kidnapped in 2016, and Edelio Morínigo, a police officer it seized eight years ago.
Last month, police dug up land in Concepción province after receiving a tip-off that Edelio Morínigo had been killed and buried there. But the search revealed nothing.