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Colombia at odds with Switzerland over mediator

July 25, 2008|Patrick J. McDonnell and Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writers

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — A diplomatic dispute has broken out between Colombia and Switzerland over the role of a Swiss mediator involved in hostage-release talks with leftist rebels.

Colombia cut off the longtime European mediation effort after the July 2 rescue of former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages, including three U.S. contractors. Colombian officials have suggested that the Swiss mediator, Jean-Pierre Gontard, exceeded his authority and became a money courier for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

In response, the Swiss government last week called on Bogota to stop attacking the Geneva-based academic. The work of Gontard and a French mediator was "exclusively humanitarian," the Swiss said in a statement.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has long been irked by what he views as an overly benign vision among some European leftists of the FARC, which raises funds through cocaine trafficking and ransoms from its kidnapping victims.

Gontard, a 67-year-old university professor, has been on contract to the Swiss government for at least eight years in mediation efforts to help gain the release of hostages, Switzerland says. Gontard, whom one associate describes as "a bit of an Indiana Jones," is said to have good contacts with rebel representatives in Europe and has made many trips to rebel-controlled territory.

Press reports here indicate that one of Gontard's former students in Switzerland is the son of Alfonso Cano, now the top FARC commander.

Contacted by telephone this month, Gontard declined to comment on the courier allegations, although he has denied being the source of a story that broke on a Swiss public radio station alleging that $20 million had been paid to FARC representatives for the release of the 15 hostages.

Some here have speculated that Gontard's possible role as a source for the story was behind Bogota's anger at the Swiss mediator. Colombia says the FARC was tricked into handing over the hostages and no money changed hands.

Bogota has mounted a very public campaign against Gontard, releasing copies of rebel e-mail messages purporting to show the mediator's links to the rebels. Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos has accused Gontard of having been a "transporter" of $500,000 that made its way into rebel hands and was seized this year in Costa Rica.

Colombian officials have suggested the money was part of a ransom paid for two employees of a Swiss pharmaceutical firm. The two hostages, citizens of Mexico and Brazil, were released in 2001. Neither the Swiss government nor the Swiss lab, Novartis, has confirmed that a ransom was paid.

The Swiss government, in its statement last week, said Gontard had "made a considerable contribution to the success of the negotiations between the FARC and the Swiss company." But Switzerland said that Gontard "never acted as an agent for handing over ransom money."

Mario Iguaran, Colombia's top prosecutor, announced in Bogota last week that officials had launched a preliminary criminal inquiry of Gontard's activities.

The allegations are largely based on rebel e-mail messages linking Gontard to the FARC, Colombian officials say. The messages are among thousands Colombian authorities say they have recovered after a March 1 raid targeting Raul Reyes, the FARC's former No. 2 commander. Reyes, who referred to Gontard in the e-mail messages, was killed in the raid on his camp in Ecuador.

Recovered e-mail messages also indicate that Gontard delivered $2,000 in June 2007 from Reyes to a FARC representative in Switzerland, according to a high-level Colombian official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the messages.

"This goes beyond any humanitarian role to directly aiding a terrorist organization, which is what the FARC is," the Colombian official said. "If Gontard had run such a mission in the United States and been found out, he'd be in jail on charges of financing a terrorist organization."

Despite such concerns, Colombia allowed Gontard into the country June 25 for another mediation mission with the FARC. He and the French representative left about a week later, reportedly after having made contact with a rebel emissary. But the July 2 hostage rescue eclipsed their duties.

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patrick.mcdonnell @latimes.com

chris.kraul@latimes.com

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