Did the Army 'Steal' FARC's Hostage Release?

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Inter Press Service

Did the Army 'Steal' FARC's Hostage Release?

by
Kintto Lucas

QUITO - A source close to the insurgent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) told IPS that the Jul. 2 rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages by the Colombian military "intercepted their liberation, planned for this weekend (Jul. 5-6) or the next," by the FARC rebels.

IPS has not been able to confirm this from other sources.

"Their release was planned for this weekend (Jul. 5-6) or the next, as agreed by the Secretariat (FARC's governing body) and 'Alfonso Cano' (their top commander) himself, that's why they were brought together," said the source, who requested anonymity, about the hostages who were previously separated in three groups in different parts of the jungle.

"The (Colombian) armed forces found out, and intercepted their liberation to make it look like a rescue," said the source, located on the border between Ecuador and Colombia.

The Colombian government's description of the successful operation was that by infiltration and other espionage techniques, the army had given the guerrillas guarding the hostages false orders, supposedly from their superiors, to bring the captives together and hand them over to the members of a fake "humanitarian mission", who would take them by helicopter to one of the FARC's top commanders.

In Madrid, Colombian Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos said on Jul. 5 (Saturday) that the intelligence operation "was brought forward 10 days so that the terrorists would not realise" that they had been infiltrated.

IPS consulted several analysts in Bogotá about the story that the hostages had been "stolen", and their conjectures were in theoretical agreement with the statements given by the source close to the FARC.

However, they all said they had no concrete information, and neither would they speculate to whom the hostages were going to be released by the FARC, if the story were true.

Other observers consulted, all of whom have been closely following the issue of the hostages held by the FARC, were convinced that at least one guerrilla leader in charge of guarding the hostages had sold out. Specifically, they mentioned Gerardo Antonio Aguilar, alias "César", the commander of the FARC First Front, who got into the helicopter with another guerrilla and the hostages. The guerrillas were both captured.

One of those consulted was journalist Carlos Lozano, editor of the Communist weekly Voz, and an official facilitator for negotiations with the FARC. When IPS told him about the suggestion that César had "sold" the hostages, he said: "I have no doubt about that."

Another source, close to the European negotiations with the FARC, told IPS on condition of anonymity that the French and Swiss facilitators who were in Colombia Jun. 26 to Jul. 1 presumably knew "that the president had said he was trying to convince César," and added he was "almost certain" that Uribe had mentioned the guerrilla by name "a month or three weeks ago".

In his view, "of course" César must have been bribed, and that explained the success of the operation. "I have no proof, of course. But they have been trying to do it for several months. The president talked about the fund of 100 million" dollars to buy off the hostages' guards, he said.

On Jun. 2, at a meeting with students parallel to the 38th General Assembly of the Organisation of American States (OAS) in the northwestern city of Medellín, opposition Senator Piedad Córdoba alerted them about the operation.

She referred to the fund of "100 million dollars to buy off one of the members of the FARC's Secretariat, or someone close to them, and then go in to rescue Ingrid Betancourt with guns blazing, without the country knowing."

Córdoba was an official mediator between the Colombian government and the FARC from August to November 2007, together with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. They obtained the unilateral release of six hostages.

In fact, no one was killed in Operation Check.

The observers who concluded that César must have been bought off wondered how it was possible that two guerrillas should have so tamely left their weapons on the ground when they entered the helicopter, when it is known that the insurgents never part with their weapons, even to sleep. They also wondered why the rest of the guerrilla guards kept at least 100 metres away from the helicopter during the operation.

But César and his companion were shown to the press on Friday (Jul. 4), and the rebel appeared to have been beaten and his facial expression and body language conveyed depression and defeat. Both men remained silent.

The operational commander of the rescue mission, General Mario Montoya, said that Operation Check cost little more than 1,700 dollars, and that no one was paid a cent.

"The important part of the story" was how military intelligence got César's regional superior Jorge Briceño (known as "Mono Jojoy"), the commander of the FARC Eastern Bloc, to give César the order to hand over the hostages, Montoya said, but did not elaborate.

The fact is, said the general, "the order was given, and as the guerrillas say, 'orders are obeyed.' And they (those in charge of guarding the hostages) were obeying orders, as far as they knew. They were obeying orders," he stressed.

"We infiltrated and penetrated human sources which produced that final result," said Montoya, that is to say, the hostages who had been split up into three groups 50 kilometres apart were gathered into one group, and then they were taken on foot 150 kilometres north, to meet the helicopter and the fake international commission.

The hostages' walk through the jungle lasted a month and a half, according to General Freddy Padilla, the commander of Colombia's armed forces.

© 2008 Inter Press Service

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