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Red Cross to stay in Colombia

Hostages board a helicopter during the Colombia rescue operation Reuters

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says it will not pull out of Colombia despite the misuse of its symbol during a hostage rescue on July 2.

This content was published on July 18, 2008 - 17:34

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe apologised to the Swiss-run ICRC on Wednesday, admitting that a member of the military mission wore the organisation's insignia during the freeing of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 others.

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

Use of the symbol in such a military operation violates the Geneva Conventions that protect the ICRC's reputation for neutrality in conflicts.

The ICRC said it was "very important" Colombia had admitted the misuse of the symbol.

Even though the Colombian government through its armed forces is linked to the case, ICRC spokesman, Florian Westphal, told swissinfo it was not fair to speak of a new dimension of abuse.

Westphal would not say whether there had been a recent increase of violations involving the Red Cross emblem.

"In view of the enormous humanitarian needs in Colombia it is extremely important to continue our work there," he said.

Commonplace abuse

The disregard for international symbols is commonplace in the South American nation.

Members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) rebel group have been known to fire on ambulances bearing the Red Cross emblem, claiming that the vehicles were being used to transport soldiers.

The work of the ICRC should not be "adversely affected", according to Westphal, who added that the ICRC would "review the security situation on a daily basis".

The organisation also intends to use its large network of contacts in Colombia to gauge the extent of the damage to its image.

"We are well known in Colombia and have a positive image. That's why I'm hopeful that trust in the ICRC will not be shaken too much."

The ICRC will also insist that all parties in the country recognise the importance of respecting the Red Cross symbol.

Westphal said the ICRC would still be willing to act as a "humanitarian intermediary" in any future hostage negotiations.

swissinfo, based on an article in German by Corinne Buchser

Red Cross emblem

The Red Cross emblem was officially approved in Geneva in 1864, a year after the International Committee of the Red Cross was founded.

The emblem is based on the Swiss flag with colours reversed.

The Red Crescent emblem was first used by ICRC volunteers during the armed conflict between Russia and Turkey (1876-1878).

In 2006, the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent amended the movement's statutes to incorporate a new emblem, the Red Crystal.

The change paved the way for the recognition and inclusion as a member of Israel's Magen David Adom society.

At the same time, admission was also granted to the Palestine Red Crescent Society.

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Emblem violations

A series of photographs published in Newsweek in 1987 showed combatants in Nicaragua disembarking from a helicopter displaying the Red Cross emblem. The helicopter was used to transport arms and supplies to the Contra rebel group.

An ICRC delegate travelling in a clearly-marked Red Cross convoy near Sarajevo in 1992 was shot dead. It was thought the combatants in the Bosnian war could no longer distinguish between real and fake Red Cross vehicles. In 1998, Serb troops were accused of firing from a Red Cross-marked helicopter on people fleeing their homes.

Several violations were also reported during various conflicts in the 1990s in the Caucasus region, central Asia and in the African state of Sierra Leone.

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