Colombia military used journalist ruse to free hostages

July 5th, 2008 - 5:25 am ICT by IANS  

DPA
Bogota/Washington, July 5 (DPA) The daring rescue of 15 hostages from leftist rebels in Colombia used a fake team of Colombian commandos posing as journalists to ease the way into the FARC camp in the jungle. The dramatic details emerged as Colombian defence officials Friday shared for the first time with journalists film footage shot during the entire 22-minute rescue mission Wednesday.

The images showed an angry and sullen, handcuffed Ingrid Betancourt, the highest profile hostage and a one-time presidential candidate, as she pauses before boarding a helicopter she feared was taking her to yet another uncertain prison in her six and a half years in captivity.

They showed a defiant Colombian security officer holding up his handcuffed hands to the camera and insisting over and over to be interviewed by the fake reporter-and-cameraman team before he boards the aircraft.

The film also shows the looks of incredulity, tears and then laughter onboard the aircraft among the prisoners as the helicopter lifts off and they learned the truth of the mission.

Colombian defence officials described how six unarmed commandos - including the camera team and pilots - landed in the FARC rebel camp, surrounded by a coca field, in a military helicopter that had been painted white to look like a civilian craft.

The journalist team pretended to be accompanying military commandos posing as fellow rebels who were to transport the 15 hostages to another camp.

Their presence built confidence among the FARC rebels, in keeping with past FARC releases of hostages that were recorded by TV cameras, officials said.

The footage shows the landing area surrounded by heavily armed rebels, standing in a wide circle around the helicopter.

Speaking at the press conference in Bogota that was aired live in the US on CNN, Colombian Defence Minister Manuel Santos rebutted questions about the direct involvement of foreign security forces, including those of Israel and the US.

The US did however play a support role by helping the Colombian military place two transponders in the rescue aircraft “so we could transmit some kind of SOS or panic signal” in case things went wrong, Santos said.

“The US kept airplanes overhead in the area during thee operation, as they have in other intelligence missions,” Santos said.

He also refuted European reports that the government paid $20 million for the release of Betancourt, three American security contractors held for five years and 11 Colombian security officials, some of them held for more than 10 years.

“$20 million would have been cheap, because we had already offered $100 million and (FARC rebels) refused,” Santos said.

Santos noted the Colombian government has often offered money for intelligence about FARC in the past, but it was not clear if it was widely known that ransom money has been offered.

Santos revealed that the US ambassador to Colombia was informed at least a week beforehand about the operation, as had been agreed between Colombian President Alvero Uribe and US President George W Bush in the case of any rescue mission where American hostages were involved.

“The ambassador told us they had studied the mission and they thought this was a great mission. They were concerned about risk, however,” Santos said.

Santos said the main risk was to “our people” who were not armed, in case FARC had become suspicious. But the “risk for the hostages” - who were FARC’s key bargaining chip in trying to force Uribe into swapping FARC rebels held in Colombian jails - “was always minimum,” he said.

The dramatic liberation Wednesday delivered the latest blow to FARC - the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - in its 40-year jungle war to unseat the elected Colombian government. This year so far, FARC lost their boss and founder Manuel Marulanda, to natural causes; number two Raul Reyes, killed in a controversial Colombian raid into Ecuador; and Ivan Rios, killed by a subordinate who cashed in on a reward.

Uribe has been unrelenting in his policy of not giving in to rebel demands, particularly those for a demilitarized zone, even if it meant saying no to the hypothetical chance for a hostage swap. He has also insisted on a military solution despite protests from the families of Betancourt and other hostages.

Betancourt, who has dual Colombian-French citizenship, returned Friday to France with her two now-young-adult children, Melanie and Lorenzo, declaring her intent to get to know them - and their romantic partners - better.

“I hope for a better world. That means being with my children, and having an opportunity to see how they live … how they love,” she said in her first broadcast television interview in English on Friday. “They are adults now, they have love relationships with persons I haven’t met yet.”

She said she will also fight for those who remain held “in the jungle. We need to cry very loud to the world” and put “all the pressure on FARC” to liberate them.
DPA

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