- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 2, 2001

BOGOTA, Colombia The bespectacled man who keeps popping up in Colombian television footage might be comical if the case didn't involve a possible plot to assassinate the president.
The bizarre case surfaced last week when a Colombian television station aired footage of a May ceremony at Bogota's National Museum at which Colombian President Andres Pastrana and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez were seated together at a table.
Helping to push in Mr. Chavez's chair and then standing behind the two leaders during the ceremony was a thin man with glasses and a dark, rumpled suit. His presence, apparently as part of the security detail, raised no suspicions at the time.
But on closer inspection, the man behind the presidents is the same man Colombia's secret service presented to the media last month as a reported guerrilla deserter who revealed an assassination plot against a Colombian presidential candidate, Alvaro Uribe.
Colombian and Venezuelan authorities have been unable to explain how this man, identified as Diego Serna, a former seminary student turned rebel, wound up being next to the two heads of state. Members of the Colombian Congress have summoned the interior minister and the head of the secret service to a closed-door session this week to demand answers.
Mr. Chavez arrived in Bogota last Tuesday for a new visit and faced a barrage of questions. The left-leaning Venezuelan president is a friend of Cuban President Fidel Castro and has previously been accused of sympathizing with Colombia's guerrillas.
But Mr. Chavez said he had no idea who Mr. Serna was and pointed out that Colombia's government was in charge of all the security for his visit in May. Airing the video showing Mr. Serna with Messrs. Pastrana and Chavez the night before the Venezuelan leader's arrival a week ago suggested "enemies" were trying to spoil relations with Colombia, Mr. Chavez told reporters.
Since the story broke, the secret service has released additional excerpts from its original questioning of Mr. Serna about the suspected plot against Mr. Uribe. In the video, Mr. Serna claims that during Mr. Chavez's visit in May, he (Mr. Serna) was part of a rebel assassination plot to kill Mr. Pastrana.
On Friday, another television station broadcast footage of a younger Mr. Serna wearing a cowboy hat and jeans and standing in the background at a 1990 ceremony at which another rebel group, the M-19, laid down its arms under a peace pact.
Former M-19 rebels interviewed on Colombian television said Mr. Serna was never a member of their guerrilla group. They said he was a sympathizer known as "the priest."
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) also denies that Mr. Serna is a member of that organization, Colombia's largest rebel group. It has said the accusations that he was part of a guerrilla assassination plot are intended to slander the rebels.
The government hasn't explained how Mr. Serna got so close to the two presidents. Mr. Pastrana has said only that his government is investigating.
The man identified as Mr. Serna has not spoken to the media. Now, even his whereabouts are a mystery.
Secret service officials said Friday that he was in a witness protection program managed by the federal prosecutors' office. Federal prosecutors said they don't have him and insist he is being held by the secret service.

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