Fujimori Purges Peru Military, Weakens Ex-Spy Chief

Reuters -- 28 October 2000

by Alistair Scrutton

LIMA - Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori fired his armed forces chief and three other top generals on Saturday in a bid to strengthen his grip on power, under challenge from fugitive ex-spymaster Vladimiro Montesinos.

Fujimori, facing Peru's worst political crisis in a decade, sacked the generals regarded as loyal to Montesinos after searching fruitlessly for three days for the former intelligence chief so he could be delivered to the judiciary.

There was no immediate reaction from the military to the purge, which removed Gen. Jose Villanueva, who was head of the armed forces and the army, as well as the heads of the navy, air force and the military garrison in the capital.

Villanueva had been hand-picked by Montesinos and the head of the Lima garrison and its tank units, Gen. Luis Cubas, is the ex-spymaster's brother-in-law.

The president told reporters outside the presidential palace that the heads of the three services had tendered their resignations ``in an enormous patriotic gesture''.

``There would be no authentic democratization if the armed forces and police had not made this enormous sacrifice,'' he said.

But political analysts said that with Montesinos still at large, and suspected of being sheltered by a section of the military, Peru's six-week-old crisis was not over.

``This means at least the end of the first round in the battle between Fujimori and Montesinos ... at the moment it's about destroying the tentacles of Montesinos in the military,'' said analyst Raul Gonzalez.

The crisis erupted when a video emerged apparently showing Montesinos offering a bribe to an opposition politician. The ensuing scandal prompted Fujimori to call elections for July next year and declare his intention to step down.

Montesinos fled to Panama to seek asylum, but returned unexpectedly on Monday and went into hiding, sparking fears of military unrest.

According to a report in the Argentine newspaper Clarin on Friday, the military leadership purged on Saturday had plotted to assassinate Fujimori at a military parade a month ago.

The president's decision to call elections had raised the possibility that an opposition-led government in 2001 could bring military officers to trial for human rights abuses and corruption.

The new military chiefs are seen as loyal to Fujimori, who named Interior Minister Gen. Walter Chacon -- regarded as a ''yes-man'' -- to replace Villanueva.

Since Wednesday, Fujimori has personally led a group of crack commandos in a manhunt around Lima for the 56-year-old Montesinos.

After ending the search empty-handed, Fujimori had been under pressure to force the military to hand over his ex-spy chief.

``With these changes, Fujimori can now begin a more earnest search for Montesinos,'' a source close to the military told Reuters.

Peru's respected state human rights monitor, Jorge Santistevan, said elements of the armed forces were sheltering Montesinos, but the Minister of the Presidency, Maria Alvarado, denied this.

The military has in the past been Fujimori's main support, sending tanks into the streets in 1992 to close Congress and the courts to allow him to rule by decree for a year amid rising leftist rebel violence.

Montesinos is credited with leading Peru's widely praised anti-narcotics program and with beefing up the spy service in its eradication of leftist rebel violence. Restoring peace and economic stability are two of Fujimori's proudest achievements in his decade in office.

Some commentators said the search for Montesinos could help him paint himself as a victim of persecution who should be granted political asylum abroad. Several Latin American countries, including Venezuela, have said they would not take him in.

Montesinos faces seven criminal complaints over notorious human rights cases, but it is unclear whether a warrant will be issued for his arrest. Fujimori says he wants to find, not detain, his former advisor, leaving any legal issues to the judiciary.

In a move on Friday seen as showing the military's influence had waned, the government agreed with the opposition to restore Peruvian nationality to Israeli-born media owner Baruch Ivcher. He was stripped of his citizenship in 1997 after his television station criticized the military.