- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2000

LIMA, Peru President Alberto Fujimori, dragged down by a bribery scandal involving his feared intelligence chief, met yesterday with his Cabinet to pave the way for new elections and plan his exit from power, as Peruvians took to the streets and flooded radio stations to voice their joy or sorrow.

Health Minister Alejandro Aguinaga said yesterday that the new elections Mr. Fujimori announced hours earlier would probably be held in six to seven months. Speaking with reporters after the Cabinet meeting, Mr. Aguinaga said Mr. Fujimori's ministers backed his decision to call a new presidential vote in which he would not be a candidate.

Alejandro Toledo, who pulled out of the May presidential runoff after charging that Mr. Fujimori planned to rig the results, returned from Washington to try to join a "unity government," arriving at Lima's airport last night to a welcome by hundreds of supporters.

Some opposition leaders called yesterday for Mr. Fujimori to step down immediately and allow for a transition government. Mr. Fujimori didn't say whether he would remain in power until the elections are held.

Rumors spread through Lima yesterday that Mr. Fujimori decided to call new elections because of resistance from high military officers when he tried to fire intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos, his shadowy aide at the center of an alleged bribery scandal.

Prime Minister Federico Salas underlined late yesterday that Mr. Fujimori was in full control of the armed forces. He said Mr. Montesinos was in Lima and under investigation, though he had not been detained.

Mr. Montesinos was seen by many as even more powerful than the president, and he hand-picked Peru's top generals. Demands for his removal and calls for new elections were fueled last week when a videotape was released reoprtedly showing Mr. Montesinos paying off an opposition congressman to support the government.

Mirko Lauer, a columnist for La Republica, a paper that reports often on the inner workings of Peru's armed forces, said he understood that Mr. Montesinos was holed up at Las Palmas air base, where the National Intelligence Service is headquartered.

In a sign of Mr. Montesinos's continued hold on power, retired army Gen. Daniel Mora noted that three television stations "that are practically run by the intelligence service" did not broadcast Mr. Fujimori's speech to the nation.

Mr. Montesinos, he said, has "demonstrated immense power." But he said he did not think there was a military crisis. "The president is still the commander in chief of the armed forces," Mr. Mora said.

In Washington, before his return, Mr. Toledo praised Mr. Fujimori's decision to give up power and pave the way for a peaceful transition.

"The political opposition in Peru should not be thinking about a witch hunt," he said. "We have to think about a government of national unity and preparing an economic reactivation program … more than political confrontation."

The 62-year-old Mr. Fujimori, smiling and looking at ease, stunned the nation with his surprise announcement late Saturday. He said the vote was necessary after the political uproar over a videotape allegedly showing his intelligence chief bribing an opposition congressman to support the government.

"Despite having been elected by a majority of the population, I do not want to become a disturbing factor, and much less, an obstacle to the strengthening of the democratic system," Mr. Fujimori said.

As tens of thousands of opponents celebrated the beginning of the end to Fujimori's decade in power, supporters spoke out yesterday to defend his record and remind the world why this son of impoverished Japanese immigrants has ruled for as long as he has.

The United States, which questioned the legitimacy of Mr. Fujimori's re-election this year, urged a peaceful and open move to "full democracy."

White House spokesman Jake Siewert, traveling in Pennsylvania with President Clinton, pointed out that the United States has been encouraging political reform since the elections in May. In light of Mr. Fujimori's decision, Mr. Siewert said, "We hope that all elements in Peru will work a peaceful and transparent process to achieve full democracy."

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