Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori resigns, turmoil over succession

LIMA, Peru - President Alberto Fujimori, who brought leftist insurgencies and economic chaos to heel but ran roughshod over Peruvian democracy, cut short an unprecedented third term and resigned Monday.

The bespectacled son of Japanese immigrants, Fujimori soared into office 10 years ago in a stunning election upset. But he has left a trail of popular indignation and confusion as Peru struggles to find his successor.

His popularity eroded by a corruption scandal he was unable to control, Fujimori sent a resignation letter to the president of Congress on Monday that acknowledged his ''errors'' but staunchly defended his decade in power.

Fujimori's resignation caught the country's leadership off guard and angered allies who complained he should have stepped down at home. The president was on a visit to Japan and issued his decision in a letter to Congress President Valentin Paniagua.

''I submit to you, Mr. President of Congress, my formal resignation as president of the republic,'' Fujimori wrote in the two-page letter, a copy of which was faxed to The Associated Press by the government.

The opposition wrested control of Congress away from Fujimori last week for the first time since his own 1992 ''coup,'' in which he seized unprecedented powers. He closed an opposition-controlled Congress, drafted a new constitution and took on special powers he said were needed to battle Marxist insurgents.

In the letter, Fujimori admitted his support had crumbled. ''I am the first to acknowledge that there is a new political scenario in the nation,'' he wrote.

In Japan, officials said Fujimori had not requested political asylum.

But Mary Ellen Countryman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. National Security Council, said Monday that Peruvian officials have informed the U.S. government that Fujimori would stay in Japan indefinitely.

Paniagua said Congress would be called into session Tuesday to take up the resignation, but did not specify what action might be taken.

Peter Romero, the U.S. acting assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, called for an orderly transition after traveling here with a high-level U.S. delegation Monday.

Asked about Fujimori's possible replacements, he cautioned, ''Our support is for the process and not for any particular person or party.''

Speaking at a news conference, he pointed to the difficult U.S. presidential election between Republican George Bush and Democrat Al Gore, saying nearly two weeks after that vote, we haven't ''identified the winner yet.''

''Democracy is a process that is always fraught with problems and disputes, which sometimes appear insurmountable, but each time they're solved, democracy comes out stronger than ever,'' he added.

Romero was joined by Arturo Valenzuela, director of Inter-American Affairs for President Clinton's National Security Council, and by U.S. Ambassador John Hamilton and others.

In addition to Fujimori's cabinet, they met with Paniagua and with Second Vice President Ricardo Marquez, both potential interim leaders.

Fujimori's letter spoke of a ''new correlation of forces.'' It was an apparent reference to the fact that opposition lawmakers won control of Congress last week.

The letter did not elaborate, but a motion had been placed before the 120-seat legislature to remove Fujimori as president on constitutional grounds of ''moral incapacity.''

Prior to his formal resignation letter, Fujimori had announced in a written statement earlier Monday that he would step down within 48 hours.

Fujimori was initially popular for defeating the powerful Marxist Shining Path and Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement guerrillas - who controlled much of Peru's countryside and shantytowns - and ending annual inflation that topped 7,000 percent when he took office in 1990.

But his popular support was eroded by lingering poverty, weariness with his autocratic ways and his close ties to his shadowy spymaster Vladimiro Montesinos, who critics charge with corruption and human rights abuses.

One of the defining moments of Fujimori's presidency came in 1997 when he personally directed the rescue of 74 hostages held by Tupac Amaru rebels in the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima. The siege ended with commandoes storming the building, killing all 14 rebels.

Fujimori and Montesinos had controlled almost all aspects of Peruvian society - from Congress to the courts to television stations - and his resignation has set off a power struggle to fill the vacuum he leaves.

It was the release in September of a videotape apparently showing Montesinos bribing an opposition congressman that launched the scandal that prompted Fujimori's downfall. It led him to announce two months ago that he would step down next July after new elections in April.

Marquez said Sunday that he was ready to assume the presidency and lead Peru to special elections on April 8. But the succession was clouded by uncertainty.

Under the constitution, the first vice president takes over when the president resigns. But First Vice President Francisco Tudela resigned after Montesinos returned to Peru on Oct. 23 following a failed asylum bid in Panama. Congress, however, never accepted his resignation.

Meanwhile, other opposition lawmakers questioned Marquez's democratic credentials and said they would call for his resignation to pave the way for Paniagua, the recently elected Congress president, to take office.

Paniagua, a political moderate, would be constitutionally next in line after the first and second vice presidents.

Fujimori had won a third five-year term last May in a vote marred by irregularities and boycotted by international observers.


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