Venezuela's Feud With Peru Flares

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Venezuela and Peru have recalled their ambassadors from each other's capitals amid escalating recriminations between the two Andean nations over the arrest of spymaster Vladimiro Montesinos.

In a lengthy television appearance that was at times comical, at times scolding, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez fired the first shot late Thursday. He accused the Peruvian government of "flagrantly violating" his nation's sovereignty by attempting to capture Montesinos, the former head of Peru's intelligence agency, in Venezuela.

On Friday morning, Peruvian Prime Minister Javier Perez de Cuellar announced that his nation was following suit.

"We were victims of real verbal aggression," Perez de Cuellar said at a news conference. "We are reacting with the immediate recall of our ambassador and then will study the situation."

As though Montesinos' capture last Saturday by Venezuelan intelligence police did not present enough problems, Peru recalled its ambassador from Japan on Wednesday to protest that country's refusal to extradite Alberto Fujimori, the former Peruvian president who is living there in self-imposed exile.

Montesinos, meanwhile, started a hunger strike to protest his transfer to a maximum-security prison he helped design for guerrilla leaders, his wife said Friday.

"What is very worrisome is his fragile state of health. . . . He is very weak," Trinidad Becerra told Channel 4 in Lima.

Becerra said her husband had not eaten since Thursday and would continue the strike until he was moved to a civilian prison because he did not belong with terrorists.

Montesinos was apprehended by Venezuelan military intelligence on June 23, ending his eight months on the lam.

Officials here said they will study all options before deciding how best to respond to Venezuela. But in public opinion, the reaction was swift and certain. One of the leading newspapers ran a picture of Chavez beneath a huge headline that said, simply, "CLOWN!"

And so Chavez found himself again trying to overcome his image as Latin America's bad boy, the man who visited Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and praises the government of Cuban President Fidel Castro.

A master orator, Chavez gave a tour de force stemwinder on all Venezuelan television and radio stations in which he presented pictures, charts and documents to slam the conduct of several top officials in the Peruvian government, including the president and the interior minister.

Chavez said he will file a formal protest and will not send his ambassador back to Lima, the Peruvian capital, until President-elect Alejandro Toledo takes power July 28.

He was most upset, Chavez said, by Peruvian officials' plans to bypass Venezuelan police in the arrest of Montesinos.

At times, Chavez banged a spoon against a water glass. At others, he sipped delicately from a cup of espresso, in a sly reference to "Operation Coffee," Venezuela's code word for the hunt for Montesinos. He flipped through a pile of documents, choosing to read some and hide information on others.

"Sadly, I must inform my fellow Venezuelans of the errors of the Peruvian government, which has acted in an unfriendly way against us," Chavez said. "They have violated our sovereignty."

In fact, Chavez lamented an "international conspiracy" to taint his image. He noted that Peru's plan to capture Montesinos without Venezuelan help was to unfold during the middle of a summit of Latin American leaders, in much the same way a previous capture attempt took place in April while Chavez was at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec.

"Is this by chance? Question. It would be a very difficult situation for Hugo Chavez to be in a summit before all the leaders of Latin America if [Peru] had managed to capture Montesinos" without Venezuela's help, he said.

The dispute concerns the circumstances of Montesinos' capture.

Peruvian Interior Minister Antonio Ketin Vidal, who led the hunt for Montesinos, gave an hourlong news conference in Lima this week in which he explained his search for the former spy chief with his own charts and photos.

During that presentation, he revealed that Peruvian authorities had worked with the FBI to deliver Montesinos directly to the Peruvian ambassador's residence in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.

Instead, on the same night that Montesinos was to be turned over by two bodyguards working secretly with the FBI in hopes of obtaining a $5-million reward, he was nabbed by Venezuelan military intelligence police.

"It's an interesting coincidence that at the moment [Montesinos] was leaving for the embassy, this interruption happened," Ketin said.

A senior Bush administration official who requested anonymity said Friday that it was not until the Peruvians called Venezuelan authorities, between two and six hours later, that Montesinos was delivered into Peruvian hands.

Peruvians have long suspected Venezuela of harboring Montesinos. One theory is that Chavez was repaying a debt owed to Montesinos and Fujimori, who provided shelter to his allies after a failed 1992 coup in Venezuela.

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Times staff writer Esther Schrader in Washington contributed to this report along with Reuters and Associated Press.

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