Pubdate: Sun, 03 Sep 2000
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Los Angeles Times
Contact:  Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053
Fax: (213) 237-7679
Author: Sebastian Rotella
Note: Special correspondent Natalia Tarnawiecki in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.


S. America: Jordan Denies That 3 Of Its Generals Were Linked To Gang. The Arms Went To Rebels In Colombia, Which Insists That It, Not Its Neighbor, Uncovered The Scheme.

BUENOS AIRES--The Peruvian government's claim that it broke up a gang running guns to Colombian guerrillas has triggered a diplomatic cross-fire that is ricocheting from Peru to Jordan to Colombia to the U.S. and back again.

It began with an announcement by Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori that had the trappings of a "psycho-social operation"--political slang in his nation for a news event choreographed by government spymasters.

This time, though, the public relations machinery may have been steered off course. Jordan has reacted indignantly to allegations that three of its generals participated in arms trafficking. And Colombian authorities complained that they advised the Peruvians of the scheme, not the other way around.

Instead of shedding light on arms sales to the hemisphere's most fearsome guerrilla group, the case has veered into the shadows where international intrigue and Peruvian politics overlap.

On Aug. 21, Fujimori announced that his powerful intelligence service--known by its Spanish initials, SIN, and which has been praised for crushing terrorism and accused of undermining democracy--had smashed an international gang that bought 10,000 automatic rifles from the Jordanian military. Most of the weapons were smuggled through the Canary Islands and Guyana, he said, before being dropped by parachute into the rebels' Colombian jungle stronghold last year.

Peruvian authorities accused three Jordanian generals of involvement in a plot that used drug money to buy AK-47 automatic rifles for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which has an estimated 15,000 rebel fighters. Peruvian spies even have a photo of one general's Mercedes, Fujimori said, though none of the Jordanians were charged.

Among the 10 suspects are a retired Peruvian army lieutenant, two low-ranking Peruvian paratroopers who allegedly took part in three airdrops in 1999, and civilians who include two Frenchmen, a Russian and a Spaniard. Six suspects were arrested recently as they allegedly prepared another smuggling flight and are facing charges, authorities said. Four others remain fugitives.

The president's account featured maps, graphics and a rare appearance by Vladimiro Montesinos, his reclusive intelligence advisor. It was the first time in memory that the spy chief, who is considered by many Peruvians to be the power behind the throne, had participated in a news conference.

The intelligence service had struck a blow in defense of the region's democracies, Fujimori declared. And he took a shot at Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who skipped Peru during a recent trip to South America. Albright has criticized the troubled election in May that gave Fujimori an unprecedented third term.

"The greatest contribution to regional security is coming from Peru, precisely the nation that was left out of the trip," Fujimori said.

Like his words, the president's timing was calculated and audacious. His announcement came amid preparations for President Clinton's trip last week to Colombia. Fujimori reiterated the concerns in the region that a $7.5-billion, U.S.-backed anti-drug plan will spread violence across borders as a beefed-up Colombian military clashes with the guerrillas.

In contrast, Peru's emphasis on intelligence operations helps avert gunplay, he said.

The publicity offensive also targeted the home audience and came just hours before the start of talks with the political opposition about democratic reforms. Opposition leaders accused Fujimori of a preemptive rebuff of one of their top demands: the ouster of Montesinos.

"The message of all this is that Montesinos cannot be removed from the government because he is the strategist of Peru's successful secret service," said Daniel Mora, a retired Peruvian general. "And it minimized the start of the dialogue between the government and opposition."

Montesino's spy agency has played a leading role in a successful battle against cocaine traffickers and Peruvian guerrillas. When U.S. military analysts discuss the wider dangers of Colombia's civil conflict, they agree that Fujimori's military and intelligence service make Peru a comparative bulwark of strength in an often anarchic region.

Nonetheless, the intelligence service has faced accusations of corruption, brutality and political dirty tricks. In this case, Peruvian critics assert that the official version could conceal scenarios ranging from gunrunning by Peruvian military men to a deceptive maneuver in which the spy service infiltrated and manipulated the arms traffickers.

The indignant Jordanian response reinforces those suspicions. Prime Minister Ali Abu Ragheb leaped to the defense of Field Marshal Abdul Hafez Mureii Kaabneh, the nation's former military chief, and two other generals named in a Peruvian note of diplomatic protest. The prime minister's account suggested that any arms trafficking occurred after a legal sale carried out in Amman, the Jordanian capital, between the two governments.

"In 1998, we sold Peru 10,000 automatic rifles for half a million dollars," Abu Ragheb told reporters. He said Jordanian officials "verified the identity documents of the Peruvian generals who took delivery of the shipment at Queen Alia International Airport. We came to know afterward that the Peruvian authorities had discovered that part of the weapons had gone to the leftist rebels in Colombia."

Further complicating matters, the alleged ringleader, retired Lt. Jose Luis Aybar, and the two paratroopers told military prosecutors that they thought the airdrops were part of a "secret operation of the Peruvian government," according to media reports in Peru. The paratroopers testified that Aybar had longtime ties to the Peruvian intelligence service and security forces, according to the reports.

After meeting last week with Jordan's ambassador in Chile, a Peruvian lawmaker said she believes that high-level commanders of her nation's military were involved. Congresswoman Anel Townsend called for a legislative commission to investigate.

Fujimori's government last week denied that Peruvian generals made the purchase in Amman. Civilian smugglers used fraudulent documents to pose as colonels, and the Jordanian military brass who dealt with them were irresponsible at best, according to Foreign Minister Fernando de Trazegnies.

The Jordanians "were not very concerned about the matter as long as they were getting the money in cash," Trazegnies said Wednesday.

The harsh tone indicates the tension between Peru and Jordan, which do not have embassies in each other's capitals. Peru's relations with Colombia have been strained as well because of a fundamental discrepancy: While Peruvian authorities say they informed Colombia of the gunrunning, the Colombian Defense Ministry said its nation's intelligence service detected the ring in early 1999 and worked with Peruvian agents to dismantle it.

In addition, Colombian Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez said some of the weapons were confiscated in military operations and their serial numbers provided to the CIA, which confirmed that the rifles had been purchased in Jordan. A Colombian diplomat hurried to Amman to meet Wednesday with Jordanian officials.

The United States, meanwhile, has treated the matter gingerly. U.S. diplomats say the Jordanian military believed that it was dealing with legitimate Peruvian buyers, a stance that partially backs the Jordanian version without totally contradicting Fujimori. 
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MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager