- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 26, 2008

Comparing himself to a bullfighter displaying the severed ears of an adversary he has just slain, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos offered a first-hand account Friday of the stunning operation earlier this month that freed three Americans and 12 other hostages held for years by left-wing guerrillas.

Mr. Santos, on his first visit to Washington since the July 2 rescue, said the bloodless operation had provided a major boost to his country’s international image and could build support for a contentious free-trade agreement now being debated in Congress.

“We cannot say it will be the determining factor” in getting the trade deal passed, Mr. Santos said after a round of meetings on Capitol Hill this week. “Nobody gave me an official statement they would be more or less prone to vote for it.

“But, yes, in the warmth with which we were received and the many, many people who saw us in Congress, I think this has helped put Colombia in a much more positive light,” he said.

Speaking at the National Press Club, Mr. Santos recounted how Colombia’s military and intelligence service staged an intricate deception to infiltrate the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, and entice the rebels to voluntarily hand over the 15 high-value hostages.

Among the released captives were three American government contractors held since February 2003 and Ingrid Betancourt, a one-time candidate for president in Colombia, who was kidnapped a year earlier.

Mr. Santos said government agents tricked the rebels into assembling the hostages from three separate camps to a clearing in the dense Colombia jungle, supposedly to be taken to another rebel hideout by a team of international humanitarian officials.

Helicopters bearing the logo of a fake humanitarian group landed to collect the hostages. Colombian government agents posing as an Italian, an Australian, an Arab and a Cuban headed the team, which also included two agents posing as journalists from the Venezuelan-based TeleSur network.

Members of the team even took acting lessons to better mimic the accents of the countries from which they supposedly were from.

Only when the group was airborne did the Colombian team overpower the FARC guards and reveal the deception.

Mr. Santos said Colombian military officers rejected any suggestion to expand the mission by attacking the 60 to 80 FARC guerrillas at the jungle camp where the transfer was made, even though the rebels would have been “sitting ducks.”

“It was important to [the military] to have a pure, a clean operation, where not a single drop of blood was spilled,” he said. “In that way, it was much more humiliating for the FARC.”

As he has previously, Mr. Santos admitted that the mission had been tainted when one nervous Colombian intelligence officer donned a Red Cross bib shortly before landing. The Geneva Conventions prohibit the use of any symbols of the international humanitarian group by parties in armed conflict. This is to protect the Red Cross’ ability to work with all sides in times of war and crisis.

The government apologized for the incident, which Mr. Santos insisted was not part of the planning for the mission. Since the Colombian government team was unarmed, he also said the mission differed from a pure military operation.

The defense minister said the government had no information about recent reports in Spanish-language newspapers that top FARC leader Alfonso Cano had flown to Nicaragua aboard a Venezuelan oil company plane to meet with leftist Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.

And Mr. Santos adamantly refused to take any questions about populist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has feuded in the past with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe over suspected support by Caracas for the FARC and other Colombian rebel groups.

“Every time I mention [Mr. Chavez’s] name here, there’s a scandal,” Mr. Santos said with a smile.

But he did not back down in the face of complaints that having military officers impersonating journalists in the FARC mission could make it more dangerous in the future for reporters to do their jobs in conflict zones.

Both Reporters Without Borders and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists protested the Colombian action.

Mr. Santos, whose family has owned and edited one of Colombia’s leading newspapers for decades, called the use of the fake journalists a “minor aspect” of the mission, one justified by the success of rescuing the hostages without firing a shot.

“If they had used the media logo of my own media company, I would have been proud and thrilled,” he said.

The defense minister said there have been signs of new divisions within FARC ranks since the rescue operation. More senior members of the rebel group are defecting to the government, providing better intelligence on the rebels’ operations and organizational structure.

“For the FARC, this was a devastating blow, to their prestige and to their ego,” he said. “We are starting to see recriminations within their ranks and they have very serious command-and-control problems.”