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Published: Wednesday February 5, 2014 MYT 10:20:01 AM
Updated: Wednesday February 5, 2014 MYT 10:21:15 AM

Colombia probes reported military spying on peace negotiators

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Tuesday ordered an investigation into the apparent spying by rogue elements in the military on his negotiating team at peace talks with Marxist FARC rebels and suggested that "dark forces" were trying to sabotage his bid to end five decades of war.

Military intelligence operatives intercepted cellular phone communications of the government's representatives at talks with the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, weekly news magazine Semana reported on Tuesday.

Peace negotiations with the FARC began in November 2012, weeks after Santos announced he had been holding secret discussions with rebel leaders. News of the talks was leaked before Santos' announcement.

"It's not acceptable from any point of view that intelligence is conducted against ordinary citizens and much less against state officials," said Santos.

He called those behind the spying "dark forces" and "loose wheels" in the military.

"It's totally unacceptable," Santos said.

The peace negotiations, being conducted in Cuba, have emerged as a campaign issue ahead of elections in May in which Santos is running for re-election.

Semana, a respected investigative magazine, said the cellular phones of negotiators Humberto de la Calle, Sergio Jaramillo and Alejandro Eder were intercepted, as well as those of leftist politicians such as former Senator Piedad Cordoba.

Two military generals - including the head of army intelligence - have been relieved from duty while the government investigation is under way, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said late on Tuesday.

Data from text messages were collected, but telephone calls were not listened to, the magazine reported. The espionage was conducted from a Bogota restaurant and adjoining Internet center set up as a front for the operation.

The peace talks with the FARC leadership are conducted in secrecy, which both sides have held to, except for brief communiqués about their progress.

'SMOKE SCREEN'

This is the first spy scandal to emerge in Colombia since the government intelligence agency known as the DAS was shut down after revelations of wiretapping during the government of former President Alvaro Uribe.

"My hand hasn't wavered in the fight against the illegal use of intelligence," said Santos, who as Uribe's defence minister had called for the spy agency to be shuttered.

The government and the FARC have fought for five decades - more than 200,000 have been killed and millions have been displaced.

The peace talks, while mostly popular, have some detractors, such as Uribe and his party's choice as candidate for president in May, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga.

The former president has used his Twitter account to criticize Santos for offering too much at the negotiating table and warned that FARC rebels may get off with soft prison sentences and seats in congress.

Uribe denied involvement in the spying and called any media suggestion that he was behind it an "infamy" and a "smoke screen."

The aim of the intelligence operation, code-named "Andromeda," was to garner as much information as possible about what was being discussed at the talks in Havana, according to a source cited by Semana.

Commenting on the report, Interior Minister Aurelio Iragorri said: "The most important is to carry out an internal investigation because this government at no time - no minister or the president - has given any instructions to interfere with communications of anyone."

"In this case we are more the victims than the victimizer," he added.

Semana said it spent 15 months investigating the spying and spoke to as many as 25 sources before publishing.

For a link to the Semana story, please see URL:

http://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/alguien-espio-los-negociadores-de-la-habana/376076-3

(Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by W Simon, Sofina Mirza-Reid and Mohammad Zargham)

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