Friday, October 24, 2008

Betancourt Update--Beer and Helicopters

In an amusing punctuation point to the Ingrid Betancourt rescue in July of this year, on October 19 a television station in Colombia aired shaky footage of the event purportedly shot by a FARC grunt with a digital camera. It concludes with the helicopter containing the precious hostages whizzing off into the clouds while the oblivious gunmen on the ground celebrate a case of beer the rescuers thoughtfully left behind.


The generally calm and matter of fact deportment of the large team of rescuers supports the picture of an operation planned well in advance, and not a last-minute hijacking by the Uribe government of a Europe-negotiated release.

It is also clear that many of the rescuers were impersonating representatives of the International Red Cross—an embarrassing violation of international law that the Colombian government had attempted to obscure in its earlier video release—and that some of the rescuers were pretending to be members of Colombian TV station Telesur—eliciting umbrage from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The operation also aped equipment and arrangements used in two previous hostage releases midwifed by Venezuela.

It is also undeniable that the Colombian government piggybacked its rescue on extensive and recent negotiations with FARC by European representatives, who were in the jungle meeting with FARC representatives a scant five days before the rescue.

According to an AFP report, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos acknowledged that he was responsible for stories in the Colombian press noting the presence in Colombia of retired French diplomat Noel Saez and Swiss hostage negotiator Jean Pierre Gontard, in order to lull FARC into a false sense of security.

Sources close to French President Sarkozy claim he instructed Saez on the request of Santos to remain in Bogota on the eve of the rescue and delay his return to the jungle.

The Colombian government is extremely keen to present the rescue as a free-standing operation that took months of planning and infiltration of high levels of FARC, completely separate from the European efforts.

In fact, there has been a concerted effort to disparage the European initiatives, as recorded on the blog of journalist Jacques Thomet, an ex-AFP heavyweight in Latin America with Uribe sympathies who has a forthcoming book on the rescue (French babelfished into Frenglish but still comprehensible).

A news report quoted on Thomet’s blog:

On July 7, the Colombian government announced that it now sought a "direct contact" with the guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to secure the release of the hostages because he had "lost confidence" in the European mediators.

"President (Alvaro Uribe of Colombia) made it clear to Mr. Jean-Pierre Gontard and Noel Saez (the Swiss and French mediators for an agreement with the guerrillas), who were in Bogota, the Colombian government 's has no confidence in their work ", had affirmed the Colombian High Commissioner for Peace Luis Carlos Restrepo.

"I think the work for many years the two facilitators did, beyond their goodwill, produced no results, and in addition they were manipulated by the FARC," he added.

And, in an August 7 post by Thomet (mile-high type in the original):

This revelation is contained in a lengthy account just send me a high source in Colombia. I do not give details, and you will understand, because I reserve the book I write about Operation Jaque and the Colombian context.

With three agreements occurring between the FARC and the Colombian power between 2000 and 2001, 440 hostages, the vast majority of soldiers or police, were released. "Jean-Pierre Gontard had no role," insists this high source.

Mr Gontard, emissary of Switzerland since 1999, had said on July 6 last year, TSR (Télévision Suisse Romande) that (its) negotiations had resulted in the release of 360 Colombian soldiers in 2001.

Another item from M. Thomet's brief against Mr.Gontard:

On 16 July, [Colombian prosecutor] Mario Iguaran announced an investigation against the Swiss mediator in the case of the hostages. Jean-Pierre Gontard is accused of having given 500,000 dollars to the FARC guerrillas in Costa Rica. This information was contained in computers of Raul Reyes, the No. 2 FARC removed on March 1.

Finally, Thomet approvingly quotes a comment on a message purportedly extracted from the notorious FARC laptop:

Chávez has spoken Ingrid, but we have said that if we made it [the release] , We would be without cards in their hands. "Proof Alvaro Uribe that the FARC would never release Ingrid Betancourt, his posture was the only valid and that his" friends ", including Nicolas Sarkozy, have greatly mistaken.

One can see a trend here. The Colombian government is anxious to remove any impression that it pushed aside the work of patient, professional negotiators working successfully toward a release.

However, it should be pointed out that all the circumstances surrounding Betancourt’s captivity in recent months—especially the concerted effort to improve her health and appearance and including FARC’s susceptibility to being gulled by a faux helicopter transfer—all point to an impending negotiated release.

The Uribe government simply protests too much, not only disparaging the negotiators to the point of naming Jean Pierre Gontard as a terrorist asset, but also by trying to make the case that Betancourt could never have been released through negotiation.

Paradoxically, the Colombian government’s overly energetic pushback strengthens the case that a genuine and effective release negotiation was short-circuited.

The kiss of death for the Colombian version of events would be if the reports of a $20 million ransom broadcast on Swiss radio shortly after the rescue —a rumor that the Colombian government gave instant credibility by furiously accusing Gontard of the leak-- ever gain currency.

The whole issue of whether or not Colombia’s President Uribe exploited the prolonged negotiation process as a blind for his rescue operation is a sore point in Europe, and it has poisoned Colombia’s relations with France and Switzerland to a remarkable extent.

According to Le Point, Sarkozy, in particular, was especially humiliated as Uribe, turning to the United States and Israel for logistical support (the United States dedicated a spy satellite to tracking the hostages; Israel supplied eavesdropping and jamming gear, ostensibly to befuddle FARC but, since the rebels had apparently been reduced to the donkey-and-scribbled-note era of communications, the target of the surveillance may have been the hostage negotiators) while giving the back of his hand to France’s high profile effort to free Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen.

Clearly Uribe, whose father died at the hands of FARC, has no use for hostage negotiators, especially when they have recourse to his detested neighbor, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

It is also difficult to escape the inference that the Colombian government’s motives for the rescue went beyond humanitarian motives, and included a desire to sideline and discredit other actors that might complicate the Uribe government’s quest for a unilateral military and political solution to the FARC problem.

What better way to poison the well for future hostage negotiators than grabbing some captives in the middle of a bona fide negotiation effort, impersonating journalists and representatives of the International Red Cross, and antagonizing France and Switzerland?

The question may be asked, So What?

Ingrid Betancourt was rescued from captivity. Who cares if the Uribe government shaded the truth?

The answer depends on whether FARC is truly shattered.

If FARC survives, with its hundreds of miserable hostages in the jungle, and Colombia lurches toward another dirty war instead of reconciliation, the price of Betancourt’s bloodless rescue may, in retrospect, seem high indeed.

Bonus for American readers

John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman happened to be in Bogota the night the deal went down. Coincidence? If this was a different year, Senator McCain’s presence at this anti-terrorist triumph might have been a factor in the U.S. presidential election.

McCain confidant Lindsey Graham provided the color commentary for his hometown paper, South Carolina’s Greenville News:

"(Colombian Defense MinisterSantos) told us the whole plan," Graham said. "We were just stunned. We're at the dinner. We're sitting there thinking about this because there are three Americans involved. Right before we leave, President Uribe says it's a go for tonight.

"I found out later that the defense minister, Santos, called the bishop, the head of the Catholic church in Colombia, about 11:30 and said, 'In about 90 minutes, we want you to pray for the heart and soul of Columbia [presumably, the padre was instructed to pray for the heart and soul of Colombia, the country in South America, not Columbia, the capital of South Carolina. An understandable flub by the otherwise reliable Greenville News—ed.].' He didn't tell him what it was about, just start praying at one o'clock.

With a thumbs-up for faith-based counter-terrorism, albeit of the Papish sort, or at least a salute to an obliging church’s unquestioning provision of prayer services to the nation's rulers on-demand, and, it occurs to me, a lack of curiousity about the interesting question of why the Almighty couldn't heed the invocation at a reasonable hour and instead made the bishop stay up another hour and a half in the middle of the night to make his plea, Graham concludes:

"Apparently, the guy did."

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