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Swiss negotiator in Colombian line of fire

Former hostage Ingrid Betancourt appeared before the public in Paris AFP

Colombia's defence minister has accused a Swiss negotiator of transporting ransom money for a leftwing rebel group concerning the release of two hostages in 2001.

This content was published on July 7, 2008 - 21:59

Critics say the pressure on the Swiss is a deliberate tactic to undermine any future negotiated solutions with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) following last week's spectacular military hostage rescue.

Together with France and Spain, Switzerland has engaged in trying to secure the release of hostages in Colombia for several years.

The attack on the Swiss envoy also comes just a couple of days after doubts over the official version of last week's audacious rescue operation of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages surfaced in the Swiss media.

"Jean-Pierre Gontard should explain why he appears in Raul Reyes's emails as the carrier of $500,000 (SFr516,125) confiscated from the Farc in Costa Rica," Colombia's Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos declared in an interview published in the Sunday edition of Colombia's El Tiempo newspaper.

The affair relates to documents reportedly found on the computer of the former Farc number two, who was killed by the Colombian army on March 1 in Ecuador.

"I have no comment to make," Gontard told the Swiss Le Temps newspaper. "I am not at all worried."

On Sunday the foreign ministry released a brief statement, referring to a "facilitation" mission in 2000 for two Novartis employees held by the Farc.

"Mr Gontard accompanied the Mexican ambassador to meet the head of the Farc and request the release of the two persons ahead of an eventual ransom payment. The release took place in 2001, in the presence of a senior member of the Colombian police force. A payment took place several months later, after discussions, which are reported on Mr Reyes's computer," it said in a statement.

On Monday Novartis CEO Daniel Vasella rejected the Colombian accusations.

"Gontard was a diplomatic intermediary to ensure the release of the hostages," he told Swiss public radio. "To my knowledge he didn't transport the money."

"Deliberate" strategy

For Daniel Pécaut, political analyst and director of the School of Social Studies in Paris, the strategy against the Swiss intermediary is "deliberate".

"It could be a way of poking fun and accusing those who have made huge efforts for years for a humanitarian exchange," Pécaut told Swiss radio on Monday. "Attacking those who served as an intermediary is a way of putting the brakes on those who might try to continue to work towards facilitating a negotiation with the Farc."

Colombia has often been irritated by the Franco-Swiss-Spanish mediation contacts with the Farc.

Claudia Jimenez, Colombia's ambassador to Switzerland, last week reiterated the difficulty for her government to accept the same "impartial approach to a terrorist group as to a legitimately elected government".

Gontard, together with former French consul, Noël Saez, were recently in Colombia as part of European efforts to renew contact with the rebels.

Facilitation efforts

The Swiss envoy, who said he learned about Betancourt's release as he was leaving the country, told Swiss television he didn't think the spectacular release would compromise future European facilitation efforts.

"I don't think so, but I can't guarantee it. I imagine the Farc are revising their strategy, as the government dealt them a heavy blow. The desire to renew contact with the three countries - France, Switzerland and Spain - is long term," said Gontard, who said he was ready to focus on the release of 24 remaining political hostages.

The Swiss foreign ministry said on Monday it would continue its "facilitation work in Colombia with the necessary discretion" and backed Gontard in his negotiator role.

"His mandate is accepted by all sides," a foreign ministry spokesman told the ATS news agency.

Also on Monday Betancourt thanked Switzerland for its mediation efforts to secure the release of hostages and rejected allegations that Gontard was closely linked to the rebels.

"It is a shameful attempt to hamper his work," she told Swiss television.

Dubious operation

Betancourt and 14 other hostages were released in a spectacular operation last Wednesday.

A helicopter plucked the former presidential candidate, three United States military contractors and 11 Colombian soldiers and police from the jungle when Colombia's military claimed it tricked Farc rebels into handing over their bargaining chips without firing a shot.

According to the Colombian defence minister, military intelligence agents infiltrated the guerrilla ranks and led the local commander in charge of the hostages to believe they were going to take them to Alfonso Cano, the guerrillas' supreme leader, to discuss a possible hostage swap.

However the celebrations were overshadowed by doubts over the official version of the audacious rescue that surfaced in the media.

On Thursday a French-speaking Swiss public radio station quoted an unidentified source "close to the events, reliable and tested many times in recent years" – saying $20 million was paid to the guerrillas and the daring rescue was to some extent stage-managed.

The source suggested that a wife of one of the guards – possibly César – had acted as a go-between after being arrested by the security forces.

Washington, Paris and Bogota denied the allegation.

swissinfo, Simon Bradley

In brief

Colombia is one of Switzerland's peace and human rights priority countries, with an annual budget of around SFr2 million ($1.9 million) and another SFr4 million in humanitarian aid from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

Since 2002, Switzerland has worked towards facilitating a mechanism for dialogue between the Farc guerrillas and the Colombian government, alongside France and Spain, to achieve a humanitarian agreement aimed at freeing hostages.

Since the end of 2005, Switzerland, Norway and Spain have taken part in peace talks between the Colombian government and the country's other main guerrilla force, the National Liberation Army.

Together with the International Centre of Transitional Justice in New York, Switzerland supports efforts by the Colombian state and organisations representing victims to introduce mechanisms for the proper recognition of crimes that have been committed and justice for victims.

Bern has supported the Swiss for Peace in Colombia programme since the end of 2001, in partnership with a group of Swiss non-governmental organisations, which aims to strengthen civil society's initiatives for peace.

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Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc)

Many Colombians believe the Farc is nearing the end of its four-decade fight.

Battlefield losses and widespread desertions have cut rebel numbers in half to about 9,000 as the US has poured billions of dollars in military and economic aid into Colombia.

Since President Álvaro Uribe came to power in 2002, he has pursued a hard-line strategy against the rebels. The active armed forces have expanded, with the number of elite anti-guerilla brigades rising from three to 22.

In March, historic leader Manuel Marulanda died of a reported heart attack, and two other top commanders were killed.

The rest are hunkered down in remote jungle and mountain hideouts, unable to communicate effectively, their income from ransom kidnappings and the cocaine trade depleted by intense military operations.

Today the Farc still hold 24 political hostages, including three politicians, which they would like to exchange with rebels who have been captured. They also hold 700 other hostages for whom they are demanding ransoms.

An opinion poll carried out after last week's rescue found that Uribe's approval rating had climbed to 91% from 73%.

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