BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Colombian authorities sought over the weekend to discredit a Swiss academic and former intermediary in talks with a left-wing rebel group who has been linked to a disputed report that officials paid $20 million for last week's release of 15 high-profile hostages.
A Colombian government official who asked to remain unnamed said Sunday that authorities suspect Geneva-based Jean Pierre Gontard was the source for the Swiss radio report last week stating that officials paid a ransom for the release of the hostages.
Officials have denied any ransom was paid and said the rescue was based on subterfuge and infiltration of the rebel high command. The notion of paying ransom is extremely sensitive here, since U.S. and Colombian authorities have labeled the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a terrorist group and have ruled out payments to terrorists.
Meanwhile, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told the newspaper El Tiempo that captured rebel computer files name Gontard as the courier for $480,000 seized by Costa Rican police at the behest of the Colombian government this year from a FARC hide-out in San Jose, the Costa Rican capital.
With the Colombian government's permission, Gontard has represented Switzerland in previous efforts to broker a peace agreement with FARC rebels.
On June 30, the government announced that Gontard and French diplomat Noel Saez had arrived in Colombia to resume those efforts. Two days later, onetime presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three American defense contractors and 11 Colombian police and soldiers were rescued after more than five years in rebel captivity.
"This Mr. Gontard is going to have to explain" why his name appeared in electronic messages of FARC commander Raul Reyes, since slain, as "transporter" of the $480,000, Santos told El Tiempo.
Gontard, reached at his home early today in Geneva, declined to comment on the $480,000 allegation, and strenuously denied leaking information to Swiss public station Radio Suisse Romande. "It absolutely was not me" who spoke to the radio program, Gontard said.
According to the Colombian defense minister, the mention of Gontard was found among the thousands of electronic files recovered from the laptop computers of Raul Reyes, nom de guerre of a top FARC commander, who was killed by Colombian air and ground forces in Ecuador on March 1.
On Friday, the Swiss radio station quoted a "reliable" source as saying that $20 million was paid to the rebel commander known as Cesar, the alias of Gerardo Aguilar Ramirez. It was he who delivered the hostages to Colombian commandos posing as humanitarian aid workers. Cesar was taken into custody, along with a subordinate, after the much-celebrated operation.
The report raised doubts about the official version that the helicopter-aided release was based on a ruse fed to the rebels. The successful rescue, said to be based on tricking rebels into thinking the hostages were being moved to a different base for meetings with top commanders, was a huge public relations boost for President Alvaro Uribe, a close U.S. ally.
The radio report suggested that Colombian authorities had managed to sway Cesar, the rebel charged with holding the hostages. That happened, the report said, through discussions with his girlfriend, a rebel who was captured this year. The money was to be paid to Cesar, not the FARC, the radio report said.
Gontard has been coming to Colombia for years as the Swiss representative of a three-nation team, including Spain and France, that has acted as facilitator for possible talks between the FARC and the government.
In the interview with El Tiempo, Colombian Defense Minister Santos called the report of a $20-million ransom "absolutely false." The minister acknowledged that one of Cesar's "lovers" was a government prisoner, but said "the rest is science fiction . . . and in bad taste."
At a town hall meeting Saturday in Aguadas, a coffee growing town in western Colombia, Uribe said efforts to "discredit" the rescue operation were being made by "embittered people."
"They believe that the Colombia geniuses are the FARC murderers," Uribe told a cheering crowd of 800. "One day they will recognize that it was these boys from the army who thought up this operation."