- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 2004

BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombia extradited a top leftist rebel to the United States yesterday to face drug and terror charges, an unprecedented move that followed his group’s refusal to free dozens of hostages, including three Americans and a German.

Ricardo Palmera, wearing handcuffs and a bulletproof vest, became the first leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to be sent for trial in a U.S. federal court — prompting fears of reprisal attacks.

A phalanx of army commandos and American officials escorted Palmera, a former FARC peace negotiator also known by the alias Simon Trinidad, to a U.S. government plane at a military airfield on the edge of Bogota. The plane took off minutes later.

President Alvaro Uribe last month issued an ultimatum to the FARC giving the group until Thursday to free 63 hostages or see Palmera extradited. The hostage list included politicians, government troops, three U.S. Defense Department contractors and a German businessman.

The FARC never responded, but in the past it has denounced the threat of extradition as “blackmail” and vowed never to give in. The group insists it will only free the hostages in exchange for 500 jailed rebels, a move Mr. Uribe has all but ruled out.

Four helicopters earlier carried Palmera from his maximum-security prison in Combita, north of the capital, to Bogota. A paramedic accompanied him on the flight with syringes containing sedatives in case he struggled or attempted suicide, prison officials said.

FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela said U.S. officials would take Palmera directly to Washington for an initial court appearance later in the day.

“They were going to keep the court open … special for him,” she said.

Palmera is accused by a U.S. federal court in the District of drug trafficking, kidnapping and supporting terrorists. After his arrest early last year in Ecuador, Colombian courts convicted him of aggravated kidnapping and sentenced him to 35 years in prison.

A former banker from a wealthy northern family who says he took up arms to fight social injustice, Palmera is one of the best-known members of the FARC, which, along with a smaller leftist rebel group, has battled for 40 years to topple the government. The conflict kills more than 3,000 people every year.

Palmera was a principal negotiator during peace talks with the administration of then-President Andres Pastrana. Those talks collapsed in February 2002.

In a published interview in December, Palmera said he was innocent and was framed by U.S. agents. “The Colombian government believed they could dampen my revolutionary zeal with extradition, but this will never happen,” he said.

Mr. Uribe has consistently used the threat of extradition to pressure Colombia’s insurgent groups, and his decision to transfer Palmera hours after the deadline expired underscored his willingness to play hardball with the FARC. While he has sent more than 150 suspected drug traffickers for trial in the United States, Mr. Uribe has never before extradited a Marxist rebel.

The hostages’ families and the Roman Catholic Church, both of whom opposed Palmera’s extradition, warned the move could complicate any future peace talks and scuttle efforts to negotiate a prisoner swap, endangering the hostages’ lives.

“It throws a new stumbling block in our efforts to reach a [hostage-freeing] humanitarian accord, which is imperative to put an end to the suffering of so many Colombians,” said the Rev. Dario Echeverri, secretary-general of the church-led National Reconciliation Commission.

“It adds a new ingredient to the negotiations — the United States,” he said. Father Echeverri, however, said he didn’t think the FARC will kill any of the hostages as retribution for Palmera’s extradition.

But Colombia’s armed forces chief has placed his troops on high alert amid fears that the FARC could strike back, and the U.S. Embassy in Bogota issued a terror warning.

Analysts say Mr. Uribe’s ultimatum to the FARC was unrealistic and part of an effort by the president to deflect criticism over his uncompromising attitude toward the rebels even as he shows leniency toward right-wing paramilitary militias, which are pursuing peace talks.

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