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COLOMBIA: French Negotiators Were to Meet Reyes the Day He Was Killed

Kintto Lucas

QUITO, Mar 7 2008 (IPS) - Three personal envoys of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who were in Ecuador since October 2007, were phoned Saturday Mar. 1 by Colombian Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo, who warned them not to go to a meeting with guerrilla leader Raúl Reyes because they would be in danger.

Sarkozy’s envoys in Ecuador, who were there with the consent of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, were negotiating with Reyes the release of former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who has been held hostage by the guerrillas for six years, said a French diplomatic source who wished not to be named.

The source told IPS that the three French negotiators were in a town near the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) camp that was bombed by the Colombian military in the wee hours of Saturday morning. The raid, carried out three kilometres from the Colombian border, killed Reyes – the rebel group’s international spokesman – and around two dozen other insurgents.

The envoys were on their way to a meeting that morning with Reyes, who was actually already dead, when they received Restrepo’s phone call warning them not to approach the contact point, for their own safety.

When Colombia announced that Reyes had been killed, the French government expressed its displeasure. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told the press that “It’s bad news that the man we were talking to is dead.”

The rebel leader was France’s contact in the negotiations for the release of Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen, which Sarkozy has made a top priority of his government.

Last month, another Sarkozy envoy met with Restrepo, who gave his word that he backed the negotiations for the release of the ailing Betancourt.

On Monday, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa reported that the aerial bombing raid on the FARC camp had frustrated the unilateral release of 12 hostages, including Betancourt, which was to take place in Ecuador this month. He said “the talks were quite advanced.”

Complaining that the attack had foiled the planned hostage handover, he said “We cannot discount that this was one of the reasons for the incursion and attack by the enemies of peace.”

The list of hostages to be released this month reportedly included Colombian army officers and non-commissioned officers Juan Carlos Bermeo, Raimundo Malagón, Arbey Delgado, and Pablo Moncayo, police officers Luis Mendieta, Edgar Duarte and Julián Guevara, and an Ecuadorian policeman, Marcelino Arreaga.

The Uribe administration admitted that the Colombian military had made an incursion into Ecuadorian territory, but accused Ecuador and Venezuela of illegal ties with the FARC. As proof, it provided documents which, according to Colombian officials, were found on laptops in Reyes’ camp.

Ecuadorian Security Minister Gustavo Larrea acknowledged that he had met in January with Reyes, “outside of Ecuador and Colombia,” and said he spoke with him only about the release of the hostages as part of an effort brokered by several governments.

France, Switzerland and Spain form part of a group of countries attempting to facilitate talks between the Colombian government and the FARC, to negotiate a humanitarian exchange of hostages for imprisoned guerrillas.

Mediation efforts by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez secured the unilateral release of six hostages by the FARC in January and February.

On Tuesday, the FARC secretariat issued a communiqué stating that Reyes “was killed carrying out a mission to arrange, through President Chávez, an interview with President Sarkozy, aimed at moving forward in the search for solutions to the situation of Ingrid Betancourt and the objective of the humanitarian exchange.”

The FARC also thanked presidents “Hugo Chávez, Nicolás Sarkozy, Rafael Correa, Daniel Ortega (of Nicaragua), Cristina Fernández (of Argentina), Evo Morales (of Bolivia) and all governments that want peace, the families of the prisoners (hostages), and the immense majority who support the exchange.”

Betancourt’s ex-husband, French diplomat Fabrice Delloye, told the press Tuesday that Uribe’s attitude was “disgusting” and “ignoble” and that he had “consistently sabotaged” any chance of securing the hostages’ release.

According to Delloye, when Uribe was in France a month ago, he urged Sarkozy to resume, along with Switzerland and Spain, the talks with Reyes, the only FARC representative authorised to discuss a humanitarian hostages-for-prisoners swap.

He also said that in Panama last week, Peace Commissioner Restrepo once again encouraged the French envoys to meet with Reyes.

“President Uribe had been perfectly aware for a long time of the location of Raúl Reyes, and he also knew that President Correa, through Minister Larrea, had strictly humanitarian relations with Reyes to try to solve the problem of the hostages,” said Delloye.

The negotiations between French envoys and Reyes had been going on for several years, and were aborted more than once due to intervention by the Colombian government, as IPS has reported in the past.

Diplomatic sources with direct knowledge of the negotiations told IPS that in June 2003 two French Foreign Ministry officials were going to meet with Reyes to receive documents proving that Betancourt was still alive, since her family had not received any “proof of life” since May 2002.

France’s interest was to clarify doubts with respect to Betancourt’s health, and the FARC was interested in re-establishing contact with the international community.

A high level French Foreign Ministry official was to take part in the meeting. At the same time, Delloye was to receive a video recording of Betancourt taped in early June 2003.

But through the tapping of telephone lines, the Uribe administration learned about and frustrated the planned meeting, according to several sources who spoke to IPS. The video was finally broadcast in August that year by a local Colombian TV channel.

Although he said he was unaware of the negotiations with Reyes at the time, then French ambassador in Ecuador, Serge Pinot, told IPS that Paris would continue doing everything possible and would make “the necessary contacts at every level” to secure Betancourt’s release.

A diplomatic source in Bogotá, who preferred not to be named, said on that occasion that behind the frustration of the operation were “U.S. special services, working in coordination with Colombian military intelligence and President Uribe.”

The aim, he said, was to block the FARC’s efforts at negotiations.

Another significant incident occurred in January 2004, when FARC negotiator Simón Trinidad was arrested in Ecuador in a joint Colombian-U.S. intelligence operation carried out in cooperation with the Ecuadorian police.

According to a communiqué issued after the arrest by the FARC, Trinidad was carrying out a mission to arrange a suitable venue for a meeting with then United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and his personal representative in Colombia, James LeMoyne.

The FARC said Trinidad’s arrest also aborted a planned meeting with representatives of the French government, which was to come up with a definitive solution to the hostage problem.

And in December 2004, Rodrigo Granda, known as the FARC’s “foreign minister”, was kidnapped by Colombian security forces, with “the possible participation of high-level Venezuelan government agents and officials,” as the rebel leader himself stated in an interview from prison that was published on the insurgent group’s web site.

Granda’s capture also thwarted local and international efforts for a humanitarian hostage-prisoner swap, as Betancourt’s husband, Juan Carlos Lecompte, said in February.

Lecompte said Uribe knew that Granda, who lived in Venezuela, was the contact for the hostages’ families and for international bodies working for a hostage-prisoner exchange, like the United Nations, the Red Cross, and the French and Swiss governments.

“Granda had contacts with the Swiss and they were arranging or starting a process for a humanitarian accord with the FARC. Uribe found out, and had him arrested,” Lecompte told the Caracol TV news programme in Colombia.

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