BOGOTA Colombia misused the symbol of the Red Cross in this month's military rescue of politician Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other rebel-held hostages, it said on Wednesday, admitting a possible violation of the rules of war.
"We regret that this occurred," President Alvaro Uribe said in a speech following reports that the Red Cross emblem was displayed on a jersey or T-shirt worn by a Colombian intelligence officer who took part in the rescue mission.
Falsely portraying military personnel as Red Cross members is against the Geneva Conventions as it could put humanitarian workers at risk when they are in war zones.
Uribe has drawn widespread praise for the July 2 rescue of French-Colombian citizen Betancourt, three U.S. defense contractors and 11 other kidnap victims held for years by Marxist guerrillas.
Rebel leaders were duped into handing over their most prized hostages in the operation, which highlighted the success of Uribe's U.S.-backed offensive against the guerrillas.
But the use of the Red Cross symbol takes some of the shine off the mission.
"Parties to the conflict must respect the Red Cross emblem at all times and under all circumstances," said Yves Heller, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Colombia. "We will continue working in the field in Colombia."
State security agents posed as members of a fictitious aid group that ingratiated itself with the guerrillas. They convinced the insurgents that they would fly the hostages by helicopter to meet with the rebels' leader in a secret camp.
Once in the air, Colombian officers overpowered the two guerrillas on board, tied them up and told the 15 hostages they were free.
Uribe said on Wednesday that the use of the Red Cross symbol was not part of the government's original rescue plan.
"One of the officers has admitted that when the helicopter was landing at the start of the operation he saw so many guerrillas that he got nervous. He feared for his life and he pulled out a jersey that had the Red Cross symbol and put it over his vest," Uribe said.
Debate raged in Colombia over the legality of the mission.
"It would have been a violation of the Geneva Conventions if the state would have used the Red Cross symbol to gain a military advantage," said Rafael Nieto, a political commentator and former deputy justice minister. "In this case the goal was to complete a humanitarian, not a military, objective."
But other legal experts disagreed.
"I doubt that a state can abuse the Red Cross symbol, no matter what the circumstances," said Jose Alvarez, a professor at Columbia University Law School in New York.
The cocaine-funded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, still holds hundreds of Colombians for ransom and political leverage in its decade-old war against the state.
Uribe's father was killed in a botched FARC kidnapping years ago, and he is hugely popular for making the cities and highways safer with his hard-line military policies.
(Reporting by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Kieran Murray)