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Red Cross symbol used in Colombia rescue

Colombia’s president says a Red Cross symbol was worn by a member of the military rescue mission that freed 15 hostages from leftist rebels.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A member of the military mission that tricked Colombian rebels into freeing 15 hostages wore the insignia of the International Red Cross during the operation, President Alvaro Uribe said Wednesday.

Uribe said his government had apologized to the Red Cross for the incident, which he called an unauthorized error by a nervous soldier.

"An officer mistakenly and contrary to orders ... put a cloth bib on his vest that carried the symbol of the International Committee of the Red Cross," Uribe said in a speech in Bogota.

International Red Cross spokesman Florian Westphal said in Geneva that the relief organization accepted Uribe’s explanation for how its symbol was misused. "It was important for us that this clarification was made by the Colombian authorities at the highest level," Westphal said.

A fleeting image of a portion of the cloth is visible in video taken of the operation by an agent posing as a cameraman that was officially released.

Use of the Red Cross symbol in such a military operation would appear to violate the Geneva Conventions that protect the relief organization's reputation for neutrality in conflicts.

In the July 2 rescue, a team of Colombian military intelligence agents posing as members of a fake international humanitarian group airlifted to safety hostages including French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors.

They were removed from a rebel-controlled zone in a Colombian Mi-17 military helicopter that had been painted white. Aboard were unarmed Colombian agents dressed in civilian clothing, several wearing Che Guevara T-shirts.

CNN reported Tuesday that it had seen several still images of members of the team prior to the rescue operation and one of them wore a bib bearing the Red Cross symbol. The person who showed them to CNN was seeking to sell unauthorized images and video of the operation.

Uribe said a government investigation was ordered after first media reports late last week on the alleged use of the Red Cross logo in the operation.

Uribe said he received the results on Wednesday and said the the man who wore the symbol had confessed that "when the helicopter was about to land he saw such a quantity of guerrillas that it made him very nervous."

He said Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos and Colombia's top generals had met with the International Red Cross on Wednesday morning to offer an explanation and apologies.

Prior to Uribe’s announcement, local Red Cross representatives had held “confidential” conversations with Colombia’s government expressing concerns about the media reports.