A former French mediator questions the official version of spectacular “Operation Checkmate“, a rescue mission carried out by the Colombian army on July 2nd 2008, that freed former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three US citizens and eleven more Farc hostages from captivity in the jungles
Noël Saez, 67, a former mediator who had been commissioned by France to negotiate with Farc, has made now new accusations that overshadow the official version of how the rescue of the fifteen hostages took place, without shooting a single bullet.
In an interview published in France’s major conservative daily “Le Figaro“
on Monday (March 9th), Mr Saez asserts that “the guards of Ingrid Betancourt had been paid off“ by the Colombian government long before the day the rescue mission occurred. “Otherwise, they would have never lost their hold of the hostages“, Mr Saez says. However, during the interview he does not present any concrete proof of this being true.
Asked by “Le Figaro“ about the secrets hiding behind the assumed success of the rescue mission, the former French consul in Bogotá affirms: “people in Colombia are convinced that (the mission) was the result of an extraordinary job made by the army. I am willing to show the opposite“.
In charge of this will be “L’emissaire“ (“The Emissary“), a book written by Mr Saez with the collaboration of the French journalist Claude Mendibil and placed into circulation by publisher Robert Laffont on Monday. In 250 pages, Mr Saez seeks to explain why “public opinion ignores how the rescue operation was accomplished“. Until now, there is general consensus about “Operation Checkmate“ being one of the most cleanly accomplished and perfectly designed military missions in history.
In his book, Mr Saez also deals with “revealing the truth“ regarding the negotiations he leaded during his time as mediator between Farc and the French government. His mission had been to achieve the release of Ingrid Betancourt, who aside from the Colombian also possesses French citizenship. Between 2005 and 2008, Mr Saez had represented the governments of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy vis-à-vis with the leaders of Farc.
Mr Saez is convinced that the success of “Operation Checkmate” involved previous negotiations between the government of Álvaro Uribe and ’César’, the member of Farc in charge of watching after the fifteen hostages that were rescued. “The mission has been presented to us at the best of Hollywood-style“, he says. “But if you truly know Farc, it is unconceivable that something like that could have really happened“.
According to Mr Saez’ book, “Operation Checkmate “ had already begun in February 2008, five months before the spectacular rescue took place. He told “Le Figaro“: “At that time, president Uribe informed Bernard Kouchner (France’s Foreign Minister) and me that the wife of ’César’, who had important duties within Farc, had been taken under arrest“. Mr Saez thinks that from this point on, and after finding an agreement with the government, ’César’ started to cooperate. He would yield the liberation of the 15 hostages under the condition of not being extradited to the United States.
Mr Saez sees a support to his statements in an assessment made by President Uribe two weeks before the “Operation Checkmate” occurred. “A guerrilla fighter who has offered to release Ingrid Betancourt along with other hostages has received a letter from government, as he demanded from us. The director of DAS (Colombia’s Intelligence Service) did this with my authorization. We have told his that if he keeps his word he will not be extradited. Let’s hope he will“, Mr Uribe said during a panel on June 13th 2008.
For Mr Saez, as false as the version spread by the government about the way in which the mission was carried out was the news—also divulged by the government on the eve of the mission—saying that he (then still working as emissary) had traveled to the Colombian jungles to meet Alfonso Cano, a rebel who had been recently appointed maximum chief of Farc. “That announcement only tended to make it credible for the guerrilla that the operation was taking place. The government used us“.
Mr Saez statements are concordant with versions of the same story divulged by the Swiss broadcasting station “Radio Suiza Romande“, according to which “Operation Checkmate“ was an imposture—the truth being, that 20 million dollars had been paid to several Farc members in charge of keeping Ingrid Betancourt, the three American soldiers and the other rescued hostages under surveillance. This information, published by the Swiss radio just one day after the mission took place, came from an anonymous source quoted by journalist Frédéric Blassel.
At that point, the Colombian government insinuated that Mr Blassel’s source had been another former European mediator, the Swiss citizen Jean-Pierre Gontard, a university professor that had represented the government of Switzerland at the face of Farc during many years. Mr Gontard’s country, together with France and Spain, had been included within the Group of Friendly Nations, an international commission that, with the accordance of President Uribe, was in charge of seeking a solution of armed conflict with Farc.
Nonetheless, as his French colleague, Mr Gontard had to leave the country, too. Shortly after the success of “Operation Checkmate“, the government accused him—on the basis of evidence found in the laptop of former Farc leader Raúl Reyes—of having transgressed his functions as mediator.
Until shortly, Mr Gontard had remained silent despite the strong and frequent accusations delivered against him by government officials. But the reproaches became so loud (he supposedly appears as the carrier of half a million dollars belonging to Farc found some months ago in Costa Rica), that he broke his silence in an interview published in “Le Monde“
on February 2nd . Mr Gontard categorically denies having transgressed the functions given to him by the Swiss government.
In the interview published in “Le Figaro“ on Monday, his colleague Noël Saez sustains a parallel version. “I’ve got nothing to hide”, he says.