Monday, July 07, 2008

Fishy, Fishy, Fishy...

More Problems Emerge for the Betancourt Rescue Story

[I am also grateful to a reader who pointed out that Betancourt and the other hostages appear to be in good physical condition after their ordeal, in contrast to the photograph documenting Betancourt's ill health while in captivity. Advance preparation by FARC to deliver healthy hostages would also be consistent with a planned, negotiated release--CH]

Hot on the heels of allegations on Swiss radio that Ingrid Betancourt was freed through payment of a $20 million ransom instead of clever Colombian special forces derring do and US backup, we get a couple more data points:

In Counterpunch, Clifton Ross reports that the South American media has an interesting twist on the ransom story:

The story entitled "There was no such rescue but a media 'show'" that appeared in today's Diario Vea was drawn from the work of Bolivarian Press Agency writer Narciso Isa Conde and the Popular News Agency of Venezuela. According to the article the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) had agreed to turn over Ingrid Betancourt and the other hostages to Swiss and French negotiators who agreed to arrange to pick up the hostages from various locations in two helicopters. The Colombian military got wind of the upcoming release and took control of the helicopters. The collusion of the U.S. in the media spin, while yet to be proven, is quite likely, especially since McCain just "happened" to be in the neighborhood and would be able to take the spotlight in a crassly opportunistic attempt to boost his pathetic presidential campaign.[emph. added]

Apparently, Diario Vea is a pro-Hugo Chavez paper in Venezuela.

One might say “consider the source” and say these allegations are sour grapes from pro-Chavez forces resentful that their guy was sidelined and the Colombian government scored a big win.

But put that together with a report by Patrick McDonnell and Chris Kaul in today's LA Times on the Colombian government's attempts to knock down the ransom story as “absolutely false” by pinning responsibility for the leak to Swiss radio on one John Pierre Gontard, who it alleges is tainted by data on a notorious captured FARC laptop as a FARC bagman.

A few problems.

First, Gontard denies the allegation.

Second, Gontard is not some FARC fellow traveler. He's one of the key Colombian peace negotiators for the European governments, so acknowledged by the Colombian government.

Third, Gontard might have been the guy who negotiated the Betancourt release in the first place.

From the LA Times:

Gontard has been coming to Colombia for years as the Swiss representative of a three-nation team, including Spain and France, that has acted as facilitator for possible talks between the FARC and the government.

...

On June 30, the government announced that Gontard and French diplomat Noel Saez had arrived in Colombia to resume those efforts. Two days later, onetime presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three American defense contractors and 11 Colombian police and soldiers were rescued after more than five years in rebel captivity.

Hmmm.

So, on June 30 Gontard is a welcome emissary of the European governments.

On July 7, he's some creepy FARC hack.

That story line doesn't make a lot of sense.

Unless, as I infer from Ross's report, the Colombians hijacked Gontard's ransom-and-release operation.

Which makes you think that all the vaunted surveillance operations that the US (and apparently Israel, according to Haaretz—h/t to LR) are claiming credit for were not directed against FARC (which, if news reports are to be believed, realize their communications are compromised and now pass messages mainly through human couriers); they were targeting the hostage negotiators in order to figure out their plans.

As reported by Ross, then the Colombian military could have zipped up to the airfield at the critical moment, commandeered the rescue helicopters, and grabbed the hostages and the glory.

Now, to cover their tracks, the Colombian and US governments attempt to swamp the true story of the release with a coordinated international media blitz.

And, when somebody, plausibly some disgruntled European negotiator who knows the real story, does leak the story to Swiss radio, the Colombians react by sliming Gontard—who was possibly on the FARC computer because he was delivering a downpayment on the ransom—to discredit the European negotiating team and squelch the whole ransom story.

That's a pretty persuasive hypothetical.

The emerging outline of this story is one of FARC being willing to deal with the Colombian government, but the Colombian (and US) governments being averse to any explicit compromises that would give credibility to Hugo Chavez, European do-gooders, ransom payments, and negotiations in general and detract from the zero-sum “War on Terror” narrative.

Certainly, if the Betancourt rescue was actually a world-class double-cross by the Colombian government, FARC (and, by the way, the European governments represented by Gontard) now realizes that any good faith negotiations involving Uribe's government are impossible.

If FARC is truly flat on its behind, this approach might work.

Then again, even if FARC still has some fight left in it and prospects for a peace—negotiated or imposed--evaporate, I expect the downside for Uribe is still limited.

After all, if the Uribe government doesn't bring peace to Colombia, it can console itself with the billions of dollars of US aid that an uncompromising and open-ended COIN operation demands.

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