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General Takes Over in Paraguay After Ousting President in Coup

February 05, 1989|From Associated Press

ASUNCION, Paraguay — Gen. Andres Rodriguez was sworn in as president Friday after ousting President Alfredo Stroessner in a coup that reportedly left scores dead. Rodriguez ordered the dictator out of the country he had ruled for 34 years.

Rodriguez, who had been Stroessner's second-in-command in the army and whose daughter is married to Stroessner's son, took the oath of office and then swore in a nine-member Cabinet composed of seven civilians, an active general and a retired general.

Paraguayans poured into the streets to celebrate the bloody military coup and to gape at damage left by hours of heavy fighting between rebel soldiers and police and troops loyal to Stroessner.

Rodriguez was cheered by several thousand citizens as he took the oath of office and swore in a Cabinet. About 15,000 accompanied him to the Colorado Party headquarters and cheered again when he appointed Juan Ramon Chaves, 87, as party president, replacing pro-Stroessner militant Sabino Montonaro.

"We're going to have a true democracy!" shouted Domingo Laino, president of the National Accord group of four opposition parties and Paraguay's best-known human rights advocate.

Era at End

"I think that the era of terrorism and corruption that affected our country for so long has come to an end, thanks to the armed forces," said Aldo Zuccolillo, publisher of ABC Color, the country's biggest newspaper at the time Stroessner closed it in 1984 for printing news the government didn't like.

Rodriguez, however, said nothing about elections nor how long his provisional presidency would last. He spoke at his swearing-in ceremony and in a nationwide address hours earlier in which he declared he was "taking command of the country from this moment."

Stroessner, 76, was put under house arrest at an army base. About 30 of his followers and aides were detained, and the hierarchy of the government and ruling Colorado Party were replaced. Sources said Rodriguez acted after being told to resign.

Ordered Out of Country

Stroessner, who was the Western Hemisphere's longest-ruling leader, was eventually ordered out of the country, and he was reportedly en route to Santiago, Chile.

Dressed in a khaki and green uniform and wearing the red, white and blue presidential sash, Rodriguez, 64, swore to uphold the presidency and observe the constitution during a short ceremony at the National Palace overlooking the Paraguay River.

Roadblocks Manned

Sirens sounded for several minutes in the city and on boats anchored in the harbor. Armed soldiers manned roadblocks outside the building and at checkpoints throughout the city of 900,000.

Between cars with tires shot flat, several large bloodstains dried in the oppressive heat. The gray, colonial-style police headquarters was pockmarked with bullet holes, its windows shattered.

The death toll was uncertain. About a dozen bodies of soldiers loyal to Stroessner lay outside the headquarters of the presidential guard.

Radio Caritas reported at least 18 soldiers dead and perhaps as many as 82 but gave no source. Earlier, Radio Caritas press director Benjamin Fernandez said the death toll "could be more than 100."

Civilians Died

Laino estimated the death toll at about 100.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Charles Redman said witnesses reported that "many soldiers and a few civilians" died. He said there were no reports of injuries to the 1,800 Americans living in Paraguay.

Diplomats and political sources said shortly before the coup that Rodriguez apparently was ordered to give up his command of the elite First Army Corps and retire or accept the post of defense minister. He refused.

The rebellion also followed a dispute within the Colorado Party between a militant pro-Stroessner faction and traditionalists who wanted to distance the 100-year-old party from the aging dictator.

An estimated 5,000 people gathered in downtown Asuncion to cheer the ouster of Stroessner, who was accused of brutal repression and who allowed Nazis, ousted dictators and drug traffickers to take refuge in Paraguay. The list included Auschwitz death camp doctor Josef Mengele; the ousted Nicaraguan dictator, Gen. Anastasio Somoza Debayle; and heroin trafficker Joseph August Ricorde.

Police Stayed Away

Police, who under Stroessner frequently used clubs, tear gas and electric cattle prods to break up such gatherings, stayed away.

"I don't know if we're going to have democracy and liberty now, but we've taken the first step," said Humberto Rubin, owner of Radio Nanduti, forced to closed in 1987 for its criticism of the government. "Our fight has not been in vain."

"I'm happy that this man (Stroessner) is gone for good, but I'm sad about the dead," said one young woman, who spent the night huddled in a restaurant near the police headquarters to avoid the street battles.

Stroessner's arrest followed a night of gunfights and cannon fire in the capital's streets between rebel soldiers backed by tanks and mortars and forces loyal to Stroessner.

'They Opened Fire'

A member of the presidential guard, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said "there was practically no battle. They didn't even ask us to surrender. They just opened fire and battered down the gates with small tanks."

Radio Itapiru reported that 32 government officials, including Stroessner's longtime private secretary, Mario Abdo Benitez, were arrested and being held at a naval base.

On Friday morning, Rodriguez addressed the nation on the radio in a clipped, authoritarian voice, saying order had been restored "and with it, all the human values of our entire constitution will be respected."

"I communicate to you that Gen. Stroessner has surrendered and finds himself in perfect health, deprived of liberty, being shown all human rights, at a residence within the First Army Corps," he said.

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