August 9, 2008

Video Raises Numerous Questions About Rescue Mission

Written by Constanza Vieira, Originally published in IPS,
6 August 2008

BOGOTA, Aug 6 (IPS) - "It is a serious matter that members of the armed forces clandestinely leaked news without coordination with their superiors," says a presidential communiqué issued in Colombia after a local TV station broadcast a video on the operation in which Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages held by the FARC guerrillas were rescued last month.

The Defence Ministry had earlier released three and a half minutes of heavily edited images on the successful Jul. 2 intelligence operation in which only one drop of blood was shed: the one that spattered former senator Betancourt, the highest-profile hostage, when Alexander Farfán, a guerrilla whose nom de guerre is "Enrique Gafas", was hit near her in the helicopter that rescued the 15 hostages.

In his statement, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe thus indirectly confirmed Tuesday that the video was not provided to the RCN TV station by the Defence Ministry, a doubt that had circulated among the media since the video was aired, at 8:00 PM local time Monday in Bogotá.

Although RCN news director Clara Elvira Ospina did not clarify whether the station paid the 60,000 dollars that were being asked for the 58-minute recording, the press had information that a member of the military was offering the video for 30,000 dollars, while a middleman was asking for a similar amount.

According to the government, "Operation Check" (as in chess) consisted of tricking the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels guarding the hostages into believing that they were handing the prisoners over to an international humanitarian mission that would take them by helicopter to the camp of FARC chief "Alfonso Cano".


The video clearly shows that at least one U.S. military cargo plane was involved in the rescue operation.

The broadcast by RCN, a station close to the government, also shows that the military helmets used by the intelligence team that carried out the rescue mission, which had been painted red and white, were carrying microphones, reportedly connected to the Defence Ministry and the U.S. cargo plane.

Thus, the Colombian military forces and the U.S. army Southern Command directly received coded messages from the officers taking part in the operation: "Fuel Ok" meant that everything was going as planned, and "Takeoff Ok" meant that the helicopter was taking off with the 15 hostages.

Gerardo Aguilar, alias "César", the head of the FARC unit that was holding the hostages, who was captured in the operation, said the first thing he saw when the helicopter rose above the jungle were two planes flying high overhead in a wide circle.

The Colombian government has not yet acknowledged the U.S. Southern Command’s active participation in planning and implementing the mission, although Colombian generals who said they commanded Operation Check admitted that there was a "button" installed by the United States in the helicopters.

The "button" was to be pushed if the guerrilla unit guarding the hostages did not fall for the ruse, which would have activated an unprecedented all-out military attack by the Colombian air force.

According to a so far unconfirmed version obtained by IPS, the Southern Command headed the operation from the very start, a year earlier.

Besides French-Colombian politician Betancourt, the group of hostages included three U.S. military contractors and 11 members of the Colombian military and police. The FARC had seized the hostages with the aim of swapping them for hundreds of imprisoned guerrillas.


The video also clearly shows that the use of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) emblem by the mission was not merely the result of a hasty last-minute decision by one of the soldiers taking part in the operation, as Uribe had stated.

The president had to publicly apologise to the ICRC when CNN reporter Karl Penhaul reported on Jul. 16 that a "confidential military source" had tried to sell him a video and three photos that clearly showed the Red Cross emblem used in Operation Check. The source said the photos were taken before the mission began.

"CNN declined to buy the material at the price being asked; it was therefore unable to verify the authenticity of the images," Penhaul’s article stated.

After the CNN report came out in mid-July, Uribe said he had ordered an internal investigation on the use of the Red Cross symbol by one of the members of the military intelligence team that carried out the rescue mission. According to Uribe, the officer "said that when the helicopter was about to land, he saw so many guerrillas that he got terribly nervous, and fearing for his life, he pulled a piece of cloth with the Red Cross emblem out of his pocket and put it over his vest." The president added that the officer would not face sanctions and that he himself assumed complete responsibility.

But the video shows the officers on the morning of Jul. 2 at a farm in southern Colombia, disguised as members of a supposed humanitarian mission. As they pose for the camera before the helicopters took off for the jungle pickup of the hostages at 11:59, one of them can be seen wearing a bib with the Red Cross symbol.

The statement released Tuesday by Uribe added that "It is serious that in the initial investigation of the operation, the whole truth did not emerge."

The Defence Ministry announced a new inquiry among those taking part in the mission, because the video was supposedly in the hands of the Ministry.

Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos announced that the decision to decorate the members of the mission with the Cruz de Boyacá, Colombia’s highest honour, had been reversed.

The ICRC released a statement Wednesday expressing "serious concern over what appears to have been a deliberate misuse of the Red Cross emblem" in the Jul. 2 rescue operation.

"If authenticated, these images would clearly establish an improper use of the Red Cross emblem, which we deplore," said the ICRC's deputy director of operations, Dominik Stillhart.

The ICRC explains that the use of the red cross, red crescent and red crystal symbols is governed by the Geneva Conventions and their protocols, and the symbols may not be used by organisations or persons not entitled to do so under international humanitarian law.

"Complete and total respect for the red cross emblem is essential if the ICRC is to be able to bring assistance and protection to the people worst affected by armed conflicts and other situations of violence," says the statement.

Through Defence Minister Santos, the government once again apologised to the ICRC on Tuesday.

But his cousin, Vice President Francisco Santos, denied that the use of the symbol constituted a war crime, because "no one was killed or injured" in the rescue operation, which also resulted in the arrest of two guerrillas.

The defence minister said the controversy "should not tarnish the results of the operation…which we are all still celebrating."

"We have seen the images," ICRC spokesman in Colombia Carlos Ríos told IPS. "The information initially obtained (from the president’s office) was apparently not so accurate.

"The emblem was misused, with the wrong intentions. That is not a good thing, because humanitarian efforts could be affected," he added.

Although he clarified that the ICRC has not had any problems in its 12 offices in Colombia since the rescue mission, he underlined that the misuse of the emblem is "a violation of international humanitarian law, whether or not it generates security problems."


The video also confirms the use of the logos of the Venezuela-based regional Spanish-language TV network Telesur and the Ecuadorean TV station Ecuavisa by members of the team posing as a camera crew.

The two helicopters, which had been painted white, did not carry the Red Cross symbol. Instead, they bore a fictitious logo invented for the operation, with the words "International Humanitarian Mission".

The helicopters also carried prominently in several places the "no weapons" symbol -- an automatic rifle in a red circle with a bar through the middle -- used by all international humanitarian missions.

Towards the end of the tape, the members of the rescue team can be seen burning the emblems used in the mission, while one of them can be heard to quip "burning the evidence."

Two women formed part of the team, and not just one "disguised as a nurse," as army chief Mario Montoya had reported.

The insurgent known as "César" said one of the women was wearing a FARC uniform.

He also said the Red Cross symbol and the apparent presence of reporters helped convince him and his fellow guerrillas, according to his lawyer Rodolfo Ríos.

"We have told the whole truth. Operation Check was planned and implemented by the Colombian army, using members of the army, and emerged from army intelligence," General Montoya stated on Jul. 3.

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