BOGOTA, Colombia – 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.
His government apologized to the Red Cross for the incident, which Uribe called an unauthorized error by a nervous soldier.
International Red Cross spokesman Florian Westphal said in Geneva that the relief organization accepted Uribe's explanation for how its symbol was misused.
"An officer mistakenly and contrary to orders ... put a cloth bib over his vest that carried the symbol of the International Committee of the Red Cross," Uribe said in a speech in Bogota.
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 for a military operation violates the first Geneva Convention because it would damage the relief group's standard for neutrality in conflicts and could endanger medical personnel using the symbol.
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. He said he received the results on Wednesday and that the soldier had confessed, saying that "when the helicopter was about to land he saw such a quantity of guerrillas that it made him very nervous."
Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos and Colombia's top generals met with the International Red Cross on Wednesday morning to offer an explanation and apologies, Uribe said.
He stressed that the rescue — of people held by the rebels for between 5-10 years — was "not an operation of attack but of rescue, that it was an operation where it was decided not to fire a single shot."
Indeed, Colombian officials said they decided not to attack the 58 rebels left on the ground when the chopper departed with two commanders aboard. The two were overpowered aloft.
Prior to Uribe's announcement, local Red Cross representatives had held "confidential" conversations with Colombia's government expressing concerns about the media reports.
"It was important for us that this clarification was made by the Colombian authorities at the highest level," Westphal said.
"It wouldn't be right for us now to second-guess the Colombian president."