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FUGITIVE Peruvian spy chief captured in Venezuela

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Fugitive Peruvian spymaster Vladimiro Montesinos, accused of amassing a fortune from arms dealing and drug trafficking, has been captured in Caracas, President Hugo Chavez said Sunday.

``We got Montesinos last night,'' Chavez said, speaking to reporters during the Andean Summit in the central Venezuelan city of Valencia. He said Venezuela would return Montesinos to Peruvian authorities ``faster than a rooster crows.''

Montesinos reportedly was being held at a military police station in the Venezuelan capital.

Montesinos, who faces charges at home ranging from money laundering to corruption, has been the target of a manhunt across South America since he fled Peru in October in a corruption scandal that led to the downfall of then-President Alberto Fujimori.

``We knew as of yesterday at 11 in the morning that there was an operation to capture Montesinos and we are anxiously awaiting news,'' Peruvian President Valentin Paniagua said from the southern city of Arequipa, where he was surveying damage from a devastating earthquake.

As head of Peru's powerful spy agency, Montesinos had been the power broker behind the government during Fujimori's 10-year rule.

Peruvian investigators say Montesinos and his cronies in the military amassed a fortune from arms dealing and drug trafficking. Investigators have detailed what they say is a huge criminal network run by Montesinos by which he controlled politicians, courts, military officials and businessmen through bribery and blackmail.

But Montesinos' fall began in September when videotapes were broadcast on television appearing to show him bribing an opposition congressman to support the government.

As allegations built against him, Montesinos fled first to Panama. But when he was refused asylum, he returned to Peru and immediately went into hiding. Fujimori personally led a futile hunt for his former right-hand man, but Montesinos slipped out of the country.

Amid the scandal, Fujimori fled to Japan in November and was ousted.

Meanwhile, the hunt went on for Montesinos. Speculation that he was hiding in Venezuela reached fever pitch after reports that he underwent plastic surgery in Caracas in December to alter his hawklike features.

According to statements by three Peruvian army officers and Costa Rican officials, Montesinos sailed from Peru to Costa Rica, then flew to Aruba, about 20 miles off northwestern Venezuela. He allegedly used a false Venezuelan passport bearing the name Manuel Antonio Rodriguez Perez.

A man using the name Manuel Rodriguez was treated for an irregular heartbeat and had plastic surgery at a Caracas clinic in December, according to Carlos Mora, a cardiologist at the clinic. He said the patient came from Aruba.

With rumors putting Montesinos in Colombia, in Ecuador and even in Cuba, Venezuelan Defense Minister Jose Vicente Rangel once described the manhunt as passing from the realm of ``magical realism'' to a popular ``serial novel.''
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