Tue, Jun 19, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Colombian president in hot water over video with top rebel

AP , BARRANCABERMEJA, COLOMBIA

In his five years in power, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has repeatedly denied accusations that he has been cozy with Colombia's murderous right-wing militias, whose thousands of victims include suspected rebel sympathizers and union activists.

Yet newly uncovered video of his 2001 campaign shows him shaking hands with a militia leader who was arrested only weeks later on suspicion of involvement in multiple murders and is now a fugitive with a price on his head. This was the latest headache for the law-and-order president, who has seen one ally after another jailed for allegedly colluding with the outlawed militias.

"I haven't known the paramilitaries, haven't been friends with them, haven't had contact with them," Uribe declared on national TV on April 19.

The militia chief in the video, which bears an Oct. 31, 2001, time stamp, was identified by three people familiar with him -- including human-rights activists -- as Fremio Sanchez Carreno. Sanchez, better known as "Comandante Esteban," had just finished spearheading the bloody militia takeover of this steamy oil-refining city on Colombia's main river when Uribe met with him and about a dozen other people.

Human-rights activists have identified the person standing behind Uribe in the video as Comandante Esteban -- the same militia leader who had signed letters threatening local human- rights and labor leaders with death in the months before the meeting. The activists asked not to be identified for their own safety because militias remain active in the area.

While the video does not show Uribe speaking with Sanchez, the image of them together in a private meeting further enmeshes the president -- the staunchest ally of the US President George W. Bush administration in Latin America -- in a scandal that has alarmed Democrats on Capitol Hill, who want to cut some of Colombia's US$600 million in annual military aid.

The video also shows Sanchez receiving a diploma from the region's top paramilitary leaders during a ceremony timestamped Nov. 25, 2000, with the camera zooming in on his "Comandante Esteban" name tag.

"He was the paramilitary boss of this entire zone," said David Ravelo, who runs the local human-rights group CREDHOS. "He was very well-known."

Associated Press obtained a copy of the video from a person who would like to see Uribe toppled and provided it on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. This person said the video was recorded by paramilitaries and said the Uribe-Sanchez encounter occurred in the city council's chambers in Puerto Berrio, a paramilitary stronghold an hour from Barrancabermeja.

One rights activists said a person who attended the meeting confirmed it took place in Puerto Berrio and said Sanchez had all but obliged the participants to go.

Authorities offered a US$5,000 reward on Friday for Sanchez's arrest on murder charges.

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