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Peru's Congress Elects Anti-Fujimori Leader

Politics: Power grab by president's foes raises odds that he will be forced out before April vote. He continues Asian trip.


LIMA, Peru — In another blow to the fading power of President Alberto Fujimori, Peru's Congress on Thursday elected its first anti-Fujimori leader in eight years.

The leadership grab by the emboldened opposition was a big step toward a potential attempt to oust Fujimori, who continued a trip to Asia on Thursday despite fears that he will be forced out before presidential elections he has set for April. Fujimori's own prime minister and economy minister have conceded in recent days that a 2-month-old political crisis could lead to the president's resignation or removal.

The opposition has lost patience with Fujimori largely because of his failure to capture Vladimiro Montesinos, his fugitive former spy chief. Montesinos was ousted in September but then surprised the president a month ago by returning from exile in Panama.

Fujimori, an enigmatic and unpredictable leader in the best of times, startled Peruvians on Monday by leaving the country under mysterious circumstances and flying to a Pacific Rim economic summit in Brunei. Although the trip had been scheduled, the president didn't bring his usual media entourage and made a hasty, secretive departure.

Despite the agitation at home, the president intends to proceed with plans to visit Tokyo and then attend a weekend summit of Latin American leaders in Panama, Economy Minister Carlos Bolona told reporters Thursday. Upon arriving in Tokyo, Fujimori declined to comment on reports in Peru that he might seek asylum in Asia. Bolona denied those rumors, however, saying Fujimori is expected to come home Sunday.

It looks increasingly possible that Congress will initiate proceedings to remove Fujimori on the grounds of moral incapacity.

Under Peru's constitution, a simple majority of legislators can remove a president if it decides that he is morally or mentally unfit. Some opposition leaders are eager to dump Fujimori, calling him an impediment to the transition he initiated in September when he announced early elections for April and promised to step down in July.

New Congress President Valentin Paniagua, a veteran leader of a small, center-right party, has said a move against the president would have to be approached carefully.

In any case, the president has become extremely vulnerable, analysts say.

"The president is weakened," said political analyst Daniel Mora, a former army general. "He has reached a rather dangerous point. If there is any sign linking him to corruption involving Montesinos, I think he will have no alternative but to resign. Or Congress will decide to get rid of him."

Adding to the suspense, a high-level U.S. delegation led by Assistant Secretary of State Peter Romero will visit Lima on Monday to meet with Fujimori and the opposition. The trip was planned before the crisis escalated, according to officials at the State Department, which has determinedly backed Fujimori's plan to oversee the transition.

Fujimori would theoretically strengthen himself by capturing Montesinos, but the hunt for the fugitive advisor has had strange aspects. Police commandos led by the president have searched a number of properties linked to Montesinos, confiscating a hoard worthy of a vintage Latin American strongman: Piaget watches, $1 million in jewelry, 1,500 Christian Dior shirts.

But Montesinos, reportedly accompanied by two bodyguards and an expert at clandestine telecommunications, has eluded security forces that in the past have tracked down terrorist kingpins and drug lords.

Some Peruvians accuse military commanders of sheltering the former spy chief. Others say Fujimori and the military are focused on finding videos and documents that, critics allege, Montesinos compiled to blackmail government officials--including the president.

"It seems they are mainly looking for evidence that could connect the president to corruption," said Mora, the political analyst. "It would not be convenient to capture him, at least not alive. Fujimori and Montesinos were like Siamese twins. When you separate Siamese twins, usually one dies. Sometimes, both die."


Special correspondent Tarnawiecki reported from Lima and Times staff writer Rotella from Buenos Aires.

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