The Colombian government seemed to have elbowed their way in and took control of the release of Ingrid Betancourt and the other hostages. As China Hand says, "a few minutes with Google leaves the Betancourt rescue story in tatters."

 

Did the Colombian government push aside European hostage negotiators to take control of the impending Betancourt release, hog the credit, and spin it as a rescue and a victory for counter-terrorism instead of negotiated piece of ransom-for-hostages?

If so, it wouldn't be the first time.

From Venezuela Analysis, November 30 of last year:

Caracas, November 30, 2007 (venezuelanalysis.com) - Colombia announced today that authorities arrested three people presumed to belong to urban militias of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Bogotá late Thursday, who were found in possession of five videos and seven letters and a digital memory card with photographs demonstrating proof of life of five civilian and eleven military hostages held by the FARC, including French Colombian citizen Ingrid Betancourt and three US defense contractors. The videos and other documents showing proof of life were addressed to Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The son of Ingrid Betancourt, Lorenzo Betancourt, said the proof that his mother is alive is thanks to the mediation of President Chavez. However, he expressed concern over her health and asked that Chavez's mediation be renewed to secure her release as soon as possible.

The proof of life of the hostages appears only a week after Colombian president Alvaro Uribe unilaterally terminated the mediating role of Chavez and Cordoba, who were working to secure the release of the hostages and had assured that "proof of life would arrive any minute."

In an interview with Telesur, Codroba, who is now under investigation by the Supreme Court for "crimes of treason against the homeland and collusion," defended her role and said that the proof of life of the hostages demonstrates that the mediation of herself and the Venezuelan president was being undertaken with complete seriousness and responsibility. [emph. added]

Let's recap.

Chavez and Cordoba successfully negotiated with FARC to obtain proof of life for Betancourt.

Just as everything was going so well, Uribe unilaterally terminates Chavez and Cordoba's role as mediators, seizes control of the operation, arrests the FARC representatives delivering proof of life, and spins the double cross as a "war on terror" victory. For good measure, Cordoba is investigated for treason.

Compare that with the present case, where it is alleged that European negotiators struck a deal with FARC, the Colombian government shouldered aside the negotiators, seized the rescue helicopters, arrested a couple of FARC guys, and spun the whole operation as a repudiation of the Chavez approach to defusing tensions with FARC. For good measure, Jean Pierre Gondart, one of the key European negotiators, is accused of being a FARC bagman.

Clearly the release of Betancourt (as opposed to rescue) has been brewing for several months, as this interesting report from April 2008 on Colombia Reports makes clear:

France is to launch a fresh bid Monday in its campaign to free Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, but there's disagreement with the Colombian government about the involvement of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner will meet Colombian President Álvaro Uribe in Bogotá before visiting Ecuador and Venezuela, whose left-wing President Hugo Chávez has sought to play a mediating role in hostage releases.

Kouchner "will re-evaluate the hostage situation with the three heads of state and stress the urgency of a humanitarian solution leading to the freeing of those held by the FARC," the French foreign ministry said in a statement.

Uribe expressed that there's no place for Chávez in possible negotiations, after French President Sarkozy Thursday asked the Venezuelan President to be available for negotiations. "The only institutions that can help negotiations are the Catholic church and European delegates," the President said on LA FM. "We love to talk to the French Foreign Minister, but we can only repeat this point of view" he said later, after meeting the country's High Commissioner of Peace...

The FARC rejected one French plan to release Betancourt this month, expressing annoyance with Uribe's handling of the proposed handover. [emph. added]

So. There was already one deal to release Betancourt back in April that got screwed up by Uribe.

In the realm of speculation, either Uribe muscled in on the negotiations between the European team and the FARC leadership and took over the operation, or the Colombian army convinced a couple of FARC renegades that it was a better idea for them to glom onto some ransom, get asylum in France, and push a couple of gormless FARC suckers on the helicopters to take the fall so the Colombian government could crow about the brilliant rescue.

Monsters and Critics has more on the June deal, with indications that at the same time FARC was negotiating through the Europeans, some FARC guys were negotiating with the Colombian army:

According to the report, one of two FARC commanders in charge of the hostages - they are named Aguilar and Gafas - opened indirect contact with Colombian authorities on March 20 to ask for details about the offer, which involved money and asylum in either Venezuela or France.

As sources for its report MediaPart cited local journalists and close associates of Ingrid Betancourt's former party, Oxygeno Verge (Oxygen Green Party), which ceased to function in 2005 due largely to Betancourt's abduction.

Last week, MediaPart and the Swiss radio station Radio Suisse Romande had reported that the FARC released the hostages in exchange for the payment of a large ransom.

The negotiations between those who controlled the hostages and the Colombian Army were 'particularly tortuous,' MediaPart reported, and succeeded largely because of the intervention of a Catholic priest who had already served as intermediary between authorities and rebels.

After agreement was reached, the rebels were able to procure medicines and food for the hostages, which explains Betancourt's surprisingly good condition after six-and-a-half years in jungle captivity.

MediaPart said the FARC commanders were eager to improve the health of their hostages because they were afraid that they would be deprived of their part of the bargain if they delivered them in bad physical condition.

In June, Uribe had publicly announced he would provide an overseas haven without threat of extradition for any FARC members who assisted in Betancourt's release, which dovetails with the report of asylum for those involved in the release.

At the time, observers wondered why Uribe would go public on such a sensitive matter. Apparently he was sending a message to renegade FARC members ready to deal.

Note Uribe's insistence on dealing through the Catholic Church and not Chavez, and compare the central role reportedly played by a Catholic priest in the MediaPart report.

And further note that provision of health care to the ailing Betancourt while in FARC hands had already been the subject of in-depth negotiation, with France having prepositioned a medical jet in anticipation of her release in March.

Clearly, FARC was anticipating a negotiated release and was providing Betancourt with health care and better food so she wouldn't emerge an emaciated scarecrow and an advertisement for FARC cruelty.

It looks like that arrangement wasn't to Uribe's liking, presumably because it would provide greater stature to FARC and the European intermediaries.

In the realm of speculation, either Uribe muscled in on the negotiations between the European team and the FARC leadership and took over the operation, or the Colombian army convinced a couple of FARC renegades that it was a better idea for them to glom onto some ransom, get asylum in France, and push a couple of gormless FARC suckers on the helicopters to take the fall so the Colombian government could crow about the brilliant rescue.

I would have to say the brilliant rescue narrative is pretty much DOA.

What's left is ransom-for-hostages or bribery-for-hostages... and a Colombian double-cross.

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Note: China Hand edits the very interesting website, China Matters.

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July 11, 2008