BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian military intelligence operatives intercepted phone communications of the government's negotiating team at peace talks with Marxist FARC rebels, a newsweekly said on Tuesday, prompting the interior ministry to announce a probe of the reported espionage.
Interior Minister Aurelio Iragorri said the government appeared to the victim of the surveillance. President Juan Manuel Santos and his Cabinet ministers had never ordered the interception of phone communications, Iragorri told Caracol Radio.
Colombia began peace talks in Cuba with the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, in November 2012, weeks after Santos announced he had been holding secret talks with rebel leaders.
The negotiations have surfaced as a campaign issue ahead of elections in May in which Santos is running for re-election.
Semana weekly magazine said the cellular phones of peace negotiators Humberto de la Calle, Sergio Jaramillo and Alejandro Eder were intercepted, as well as leftist politicians like former Senator Piedad Cordoba.
Data from text messages were collected, but telephone calls were not listened to, it reported. The espionage was conducted from a Bogota restaurant and adjoining Internet centre set up as front for the operation.
The government peace talks with the FARC guerrillas are conducted in secrecy, which both sides have held to, except for brief communiqués about their progress.
This is the first spy scandal to emerge since the government intelligence agency known as the DAS was shut down after revelations of wire-tapping during the government of former President Alvaro Uribe.
The government and FARC have fought for five decades.
The peace talks, while mostly popular, have some detractors, like Uribe and his party's choice as candidate for president in May, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga.
The aim of the military intelligence operation, code named "Andromeda," was to garner as much information as possible about what was being discussed at the peace talks in Havana, according to a source cited by Semana.
Commenting on the Semana report, Interior Minister Iragorri said, "The most important is to carry out an internal investigation because this government at no time, no minister or the president, have 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:
(Editing by W Simon)