U.S. kept in dark on rescue mission

Colombians kept it quiet to avoid veto

July 14, 2008|By Chris Kraul and Patrick J. McDonnell | Chris Kraul and Patrick J. McDonnell,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BOGOTA, Colombia - Although the U.S. government was supposed to have final authority on any plan to rescue three U.S. contractors held by guerrillas, it was kept in the dark by the Colombian military until a week before the July 2 operation to lessen the chances the Bush administration would veto the effort, said a top official close to the operation.

"They wanted to wait long enough to make it difficult to say no," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was forbidden to speak on the topic for attribution.

An official with Colombia's Defense Ministry, who also asked for anonymity, confirmed yesterday that his government waited until shortly before the operation to inform the United States. He said Colombia delayed, however, not because it feared that the Americans would oppose the move but "to ensure with certainty that the plan would be executed successfully."

In early June, intelligence officials in the U.S. Embassy here intercepted communication between rebel leaders at the same time that it noticed the suspicious convergence of groups suspected of guarding the three Americans and other hostages. The officials were part of a 100-person team dedicated to securing the release of the U.S. contractors since they were taken captive in February 2003.

Suspecting that a rescue plan was in motion, U.S. officials asked Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, who on June 25 then laid out the daring blueprint, the first official said. On June 30, at a meeting of the National Security Council that included Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the United States gave a green light. U.S. officials here believed chances of success were about 50-50.

Colombian and U.S. officials had long agreed that the latter would have a final say on any effort to rescue the contractors.

On July 2, a 13-member Colombian commando team posing as a humanitarian mission fooled leftists guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, into loading 15 hostages, including the three Americans and onetime Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, onto a helicopter they thought was taking them to meet the rebel group's new commander. The commandos instead overcame the two rebel guards and flew the hostages to safety.

The successful operation was totally different from what the Americans were expecting. The U.S. government spent years training and equipping the Colombians for carrying out a so-called "humanitarian cordon," in which 2,000 Colombian soldiers would be airlifted to surround the location where the hostages were believed to be held. Rescuers would then use loudspeakers and leaflets to negotiate a hostage release.

But that plan carried significant risks because rebels have in the past shot hostages when they suspected a rescue operation was being launched.

In February, one such operation nearly was launched after the three U.S. hostages were spotted bathing in the Apoporis River in Guaviare state. The U.S. had moved 900 additional armed forces to Colombia in anticipation of such a plan. But the mission was scrubbed after Colombian intelligence teams lost track of the hostages.

Although the U.S. anti-drug and anti-terrorism aid package known as Plan Colombia limits to 800 the number of uniformed U.S. service members in Colombia at any time, officials say a separate U.S. law agreed to by Colombia allows for the presence of additional forces to effect the rescue of Americans "held against their will."

For the July 2 operation, U.S. officials were able to provide minimal help: medical rescue aircraft, backup personnel, tracking devices and technical expertise in hiding two pistols concealed in the body of the helicopter.

Last week, the United States formally requested the extradition of the two rebels escorting the hostages: Gerardo Antonio Aguilar, alias Cesar, and Alexander Farfan Suarez, alias Enrique Gafas, on kidnapping, terror and drug trafficking charges.

In a statement issued Friday on a Web site, the FARC said the rescue was made possible by the "betrayal" of Cesar and Enrique Gafas. Both Colombian and U.S. governments have denied that the two rebels facilitated the rescue, as well as reports that as much as $20 million in ransom was paid to members of the FARC.

Chris Kraul and Patrick J. McDonnell write for the Los Angeles Times.

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