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After denying they exist, Peru finds spy dungeons

LIMA, Peru (Reuters) -- Now you see them. Now you don't.

Peru's manhunt for former spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos took another surreal twist on Tuesday after the government found underground cells -- suspected "torture dungeons" -- under his offices only weeks after officials said they did not exist.

Peru's opposition slammed Prime Minister Federico Salas as "ridiculous" after he found cells behind a wall at the feared National Intelligence Service (SIN) headquarters. The agency is being dismantled after bribery charges led to Montesinos' being fired in September, sparking two months of political turmoil.

Peru in transition

Salas said last month there were no hidden underground chambers and allowed reporters to visit the headquarters known in Peru as "the factory."

On Tuesday, he said cells -- with bars at the windows but air conditioning -- did exist, but "it could not be verified whether torture was carried out (there)."

President Alberto Fujimori said in September he would call elections next year and quit office four years early after a bribery scandal involving Montesinos, known as "Rasputin" for his power behind the throne during Fujimori's 10-year rule.

But while the government has promised new elections, most Peruvians believe it is trying to stonewall probes of Montesinos to avoid embarrassing revelations. The discovery of underground cells added to that feeling.

Montesinos is being investigated on charges ranging from ordering murder and torture, to money laundering.

Peruvians have long believed Montesinos' spy services tortured people in underground chambers, part of widespread accusations the SIN hounded government rivals.

Those suspicions appeared to be confirmed by the case of Leonor la Rosa, an intelligence officer whose fingers and feet were burned with a soldering iron in an underground cell by fellow agents in 1997 because he allegedly leaked secrets.

"Salas is being ridiculous. He said there were no torture cells or anything like them. Now he said there were cells, but not for torture," said opposition lawmaker Jorge del Castillo.

After a three-week manhunt, authorities have not found the former spy chief, but police discovered clues on Tuesday to his style sense after finding more than 1,500 Christian Dior shirts at his wife's house in a fashionable Lima neighborhood.

The government also announced last week it found $1 million in jewelry -- including diamond-encrusted watches -- at the house.

Peruvians have been transfixed by the manhunt and have wondered how the official managed to buy so many luxury goods when, according to Salas, he officially earned $370 a month.

Montesinos has been accused of spying for the CIA, authorizing death squads and colluding with drug traffickers. While he headed SIN and Fujimori served as president, Peru acquired one of the worst human rights records in Latin America.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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