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TV programme refutes Colombia ransom claim

A Swiss mediator accused by the Colombian government of paying money to a rebel movement merely opened up channels of communication, new evidence shows.

Jean-Pierre Gontard was mandated by the foreign ministry in 2001 to act as an intermediary between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and the Basel pharmaceutical company Novartis, to achieve the release of two Novartis employees kidnapped by the guerrilla group.

An investigation by French-language television to be broadcast on Thursday found documentary evidence that Novartis had indeed subsequently paid a ransom of 2.5 million dollars in 2001.

The programme says the Colombian authorities were aware of the deal, and that the second in command of the country's police service was present at the release of the two men who had been seized the previous year.

Gontard admits making a "great mistake" in asking the guerrillas not to mention the name of Novartis in any correspondence. Instead they referred to it as "Gontard's money".

Novartis has not commented on the report "for legal reasons", the producer told an advance media showing of the film.

In July 2008 Colombia announced that it had found on the computer of a top Farc leader indications that Gontard had transported $500,000 for the rebels, an accusation which Gontard and the Swiss foreign ministry strenuously denied.

The television programme suggests that the Colombian government made the accusations in an attempt to discredit all mediators, both local and foreign, and to attack "European interference" in its dealings with the Farc.

Colombia later ended all Swiss mediation efforts with hostage takers.

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