Colombia dismisses head of armed forces over taped remarks

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia dismissed the head of its armed forces on Tuesday over disrespectful comments he made about prosecutors in audio recordings revealed by a news magazine.

(L-R) Colombia's new chief of Joint Staff of the Armed Forces General Javier Florez, incoming head of the Armed Forces General Juan Pablo Rodriguez and new Colombian Army Commander Chief General Jaime Lasprilla talk after a news conference at the Ministry of Defense building in Bogota February 18,2014. REUTERS/John Vizcaino

In the recordings published online by Semana, General Leonardo Barrero is heard in a phone call with a colonel imprisoned over possible links to extrajudicial killings, making disparaging remarks about the investigating prosecutors.

The weekly magazine also reported a military procurement corruption scandal. It said hundreds of hours of audio recordings in its possession show that senior military officers received kickbacks of up to 50 percent on deals.

“I consider opportune and necessary to make a change in the military leadership,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said in a statement announcing Barrero’s dismissal.

“The general commander of the armed forces is not leaving over any act of corruption, but leaves because of disrespectful and disobliging expressions which detract from the stateliness of the judicial powers and from the country,” he said.

Barrero is heard in the call telling his jailed colleague that he and others should “form a mafia” to in turn make allegations against the prosecutors investigating them.

In a statement on Tuesday, Barrero said: “After 39 years wearing the camouflage uniform with pride, serving the country, the Military Forces, and especially, the National Army, I leave with the tranquility and satisfaction of having acted according to the principles and values that govern military life.”

Colombia’s large armed forces have been engaged in combat for five decades with Marxist FARC and ELN guerrillas. The military has received financial and other help from the United States for more than a decade, helping to reduce the rebels’ ranks.

The revelations were made just two weeks after the same magazine reported that rogue elements in the military were spying on negotiators at peace talks which have been taking place for 15 months between the government and FARC in the Cuban capital, Havana.

Civilian judicial authorities are investigating those allegations, although a preliminary military inquiry said suspects denied carrying out any kind of illicit espionage.

The peace talks have not been disrupted.

Santos, who will stand for re-election in a presidential vote in May and be keen to avoid perceptions of leniency over allegations of corruption, has insisted that civil and not military judicial authorities investigate those claims.

Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon named army commander Juan Pablo Rodriguez as the new head of the armed forces on Tuesday and announced several other senior appointments. The heads of the police, air force and navy were unchanged.

Reporting by Monica Garcia and Jaime Acosta; Editing by James Dalgleish and Grant McCool