Colombian president's lawyer target of assassins

The Associated Press

BOGOTA, Colombia Assailants fired machine guns yesterday at cars carrying President Ernesto Samper's lawyer and bodyguards, killing two bodyguards and injuring the lawyer.

The attack on Antonio Jose Cancino was reminiscent of the bloody days of the government's war against the Medellin cocaine cartel and threatened to stall the inquiry into whether Samper used money from another drug gang to win the 1994 elections.

A previously unknown group calling itself the Movement for a Dignified Colombia claimed responsibility and said Samper, his wife and other government leaders would be targeted next.

Samper, who was seriously wounded in a 1989 attack by drug cartel gunmen, canceled public appearances Wednesday and met with law enforcement officials to discuss security.

Cancino was present on Tuesday when the head of a congressional commission questioned Samper about allegations that the Cali cartel the world's biggest drug gang donated more than $6 million to his election campaign.

Five gunmen jumped from a van and fired automatic rifles at Cancino's Mercedes Benz and his bodyguards' car, a witness told RCN radio. Cancino got out and was shot, the unidentified witness said.

Cancino, 55, was taken to a military hospital, where doctors treated wounds in his right arm and hand. His driver and another bodyguard were also injured.

Hours later, a telephone caller told radio stations that the group claiming responsibility wanted Samper to resign and criticized the president for trying to ''undermine'' the probe of his campaign.

Without providing details, the caller said the group was made up of people ''who are accused of deeds they did not commit.''

In a statement, Samper's office blamed the attack on ''dark forces that are trying to create a climate of confusion'' and prevent the president from proving his innocence. It said government prosecutors investigating Samper's election campaign had contributed to the unrest.

Three senior members of Samper's campaign have been arrested. The president has denied any knowledge that drug cash financed his campaign.

The attack on Cancino revived memories of the terrorism of the Medellin drug cartel, which assassinated judges, police and journalists for a decade. Drug violence dwindled after security forces killed cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar in 1993.

Yesterday's attack occurred about 7 a.m., and for hours afterward the dead bodyguards remained slumped in their bullet-riddled car near the university where Cancino had been headed to teach a law class.

It was uncertain who would have benefited from Cancino's death. He alienated many Colombians by publicly attacking the efforts of Prosecutor General Alfonso Valdivieso, who is heading an inquiry into the influence of drug corruption on Colombian politics.

Enrique Parejo, a government critic and former justice minister, speculated the attack was the work of the Cali cartel or an ''effort to take attention away from the scandal around the president.''

In recent weeks, key players in the investigation of Samper's campaign have received death threats. They include Cancino and members of the Congress' Accusation Commission, which will decide whether to recommend impeachment proceedings against Samper.

Guillermo Pallomari, the Cali cartel accountant who surrendered to U.S. drug agents in Washington recently, has reportedly given authorities documents about cartel payoffs to politicians.

Earlier this week, Cancino said he had heard Pallomari was dead and insinuated the man in U.S. custody was an impostor.

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