Official misused Red Cross symbol in Betancourt rescue

17th July 2008, Comments 0 comments

The Red Cross symbol used in the rescue operation on 2 July may have violated Geneva Conventions.

17 July 2008

BOGOTA / GENEVA - Colombia misused Red Cross symbols in the spectacular operation to free Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages held by leftist rebels, President Alvaro Uribe admitted Wednesday.

The Colombian government initially denied reports by CNN that the Red Cross symbol had been used in the operation in a possible violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Broadcaster CNN said it had been offered a video and photographs "by military sources," in which soldiers' uniforms with symbols of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) could reportedly be seen.

The images were taken just before the soldiers left for the rescue operation on 2 July that retrieved the hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Uribe later admitted that one military official did use the symbols on his chest because of his "great nervousness" at the sight of a large number of rebels.

"He feared for his life, and he took out the piece of cloth with the Red Cross symbols that was in his pocket and put it over his waistcoat. We are sorry that this happened," Uribe said.

According to the Geneva Conventions, Red Cross and Red Crescent symbols are protected and can only be used by authorised personnel. This includes military medical vehicles.

The president stressed that the official had contradicted his orders but would not be punished for his action and that his name would not be disclosed.

"I take responsibility. We are going to ask the official to have the courage to ask his mission colleagues to forgive him," Uribe said.

The Colombian president drew praise for the operation to rescue Betancourt - the most high-profile hostage held by FARC - along with three US contractors and 11 Colombian military and police officers.

The misuse of ICRC symbols could be a substantial handicap to potential future hostage releases, because FARC has agreed in the past to hand over hostages to Red Cross personnel.

Uribe said Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos had spoken with ICRC representatives in Bogota "to provide explanations and offer excuses."

In a statement, the ICRC in Colombia stressed that its symbols "have to he respected under all circumstances."

"The ICRC reiterates the importance of respect for the Red Cross emblem as a protecting sign that allows its representatives to have access to the areas most affected by armed conflict and to carry out their activities to protect and assist its victims," the organization said.

Initially, Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos denied that Red Cross symbols were used, but also said further investigation was required to determine exactly what had happened.

In the official videos of the rescue released by the Colombian military no recognizable ICRC symbols were seen. However, the footage was blurred at several points and showed only portions of the operation.

An ICRC spokeswoman said earlier in Geneva that the organization was evaluating the reports and was in close contact with the Colombian government.

According to the official version of events, the Colombian military infiltrated FARC and secured the rescue "without firing a single shot" and without bloodshed.

Subsequent reports of an alleged ransom payment - some USD 20 million - have done little to undermine the success, since the blow dealt to FARC would be huge in any case and the money allegedly went toward bribing individual rebels rather than to the rebel group itself. Colombian authorities have denied that a ransom was paid, and FARC have blamed the rescue on the "betrayal" of some rebels.

[dpa / Expatica]

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