ICRC sees red over Colombia hostage release

7th August 2008, Comments 0 comments

The International Committee of the Red Cross condemns misuse of its emblem by the Colombian military during the rescue operation of Betancourt in July.

7 August 2008

GENEVA -Diplomatic tensions over the release of Ingrid Betancourt flared Wednesday as the Red Cross slammed the use of its emblem by Colombian forces who freed the hostage, and Switzerland faced a probe into alleged ransom payments.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) issued a statement deploring the apparent "deliberate misuse" of its emblem by the Colombian military during the liberation of Betancourt in July.

The ICRC said that Colombian TV footage showed a member of the army was sporting the emblem before the operation to release Betancourt and 14 other hostages on 2 July had even begun.

"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 in a statement voiced its "serious concern over what appears to have been a deliberate misuse of the Red Cross emblem" during the operation.

"We are in contact with the Colombian authorities to ask for further clarifications as to exactly what happened," Stillhart added.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe acknowledged in July that an army officer had used the emblem in the 2 July operation to rescue the hostages from Marxist FARC rebels, and said he had apologised to the ICRC.

Uribe said at the time that the use of the emblem was not deliberate, but the ICRC said Wednesday that the footage shown Monday on Colombian television indicated "intentional misuse".

The lawyer of the two members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
(FARC) who were captured in the operation said they had been tricked by the soldiers' use of the Red Cross emblem.

Colombia's Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos said Wednesday that neither he nor armed forces chief General Freddy Padilla knew about the filming of the preparations for the rescue operation.

"I was very surprised, particularly as the use of the Red Cross symbol by a captain was evident from the beginning, when I was told that they had recourse to it during a moment of tension," the minister told reporters.

Bogota has said that French-Colombian Betancourt, three US contractors and 11 Colombian soldiers were grabbed out of the jungle in a bold rescue that built on years of eavesdropping and the deception of rebels on the ground.

The issue is likely to be raised by Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, who flies to Bogota on Sunday to meet Uribe and her counterpart Jaime Bermudez.

Under the Geneva conventions, only the ICRC is allowed to use its distinct Red Cross emblem and Switzerland, as a party to the conventions, is charged with making sure they are upheld.

However, Calmy-Rey's visit will be overshadowed by a decision by Colombian authorities to open an investigation into an alleged ransom paid for FARC-held Swiss hostages.

Bogota has begun an inquiry into the role of Swiss mediator Jean-Pierre Gontard, suspected by Colombia of handing over a USD 500,000 dollar (CHF 528,000 or EUR 323,000) ransom to the Marxist guerrilla group in return for the release of two Novartis employees in 2001.

Both Gontard and the Swiss foreign ministry deny the allegation.

FARC rebels abducted Betancourt in 2002 while she was campaigning for the Colombian presidency.

The group, Latin America's oldest and largest insurgency, continues to detain an estimated 700 hostages. Up to 2,000 more are believed to be held by the National Liberation Army, another leftist rebel group.

[AFP / Expatica]

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