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Assault Leader Planned Somoza’s Assassination, Sources Say

January 27, 1989

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) _ The leader of this week’s assault on an army base tried to overthrow the government in the 1970s and helped assassinate deposed Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, informed sources said.

Enrique Gorriaran Merlo directed the attack Monday on the 3rd Infantry Regiment base in the western suburb of La Tablada that resulted in the death of 38 people, government and security sources said Thursday.

Gorriaran Merlo, 47, once led the now-defunct People’s Revolutionary Army, which openly battled the military after it took power in a 1976 coup. He is believed to have escaped during a 27-hour siege in which army and police forces retook the base, the sources said on condition of anonymity.

Among the dead were eight soldiers and two policemen. One of the policemen died Thursday of wounds suffered in the assault. About 70 others were wounded.

But Gorriaran Merlo was not thought to be among the bodies of 14 armed civilians who remain unidentified, the sources said.

The disclosure came as authorities probed links between the attackers and left-wing organizations. The government claims the assailants were leftist subversives.

Police on Thursday raided several houses in Mar del Plata, 250 miles south of Buenos Aires, and arrested three people but gave no other details.

Gorriaran Merlo, a stocky former architecture student, was involved in the Marxist People’s Revolutionary Army, which was decimated in the late 1970s during a harsh anti-subversion campaign waged by the military leaders.

Gorriaran Merlo, however, escaped and went to Nicaragua. In published interviews, he said he led a team of Argentine and Nicaraguan guerrillas who assassinated Somoza in 1980 on a street in the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion. Somoza had been ousted by Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinistas in 1979.

President Raul Alfonsin ordered the prosecution of Gorriaran Merlo shortly after taking office in December 1983. Alfonsin’s election ended nearly eight years of military dictatorship.

Gorriaran Merlo was believed to be living abroad. Last year, a leftist human rights lawyer, Jorge Banos, asked the courts to allow Gorriaran Merlo to return and face trial without being imprisoned.

Police said among those killed in this week’s assault was Banos. He and at least two other attackers whose names have been released by police were active in a leftist political group, the Everyone for the Country Movement.

The little-known movement, formed about three years ago, denounced earlier this month what it said were plans for a coup by right-wing extremists in the armed forces. Those elements have led three dramatic but short-lived insurrections against Alfonsin since April 1987.

The army base’s attackers carried a written proclamation that said their action was designed to stop a coup and foment civilian resistance to the military.

The incident surprised and chilled Argentines, and prompted Alfonsin to set up a National Security Council to evaluate and curtail the threat of subversion.

The group, composed of the chiefs of the military branches and several government ministers, met for the first time Thursday. Alfonsin presided. No details were provided.

The centrist Radical government, with an eye to the excesses committed by the military during its so-called ″dirty war″ against subversion in the 1970s, until now has barred the military from a major role in internal security.

Human rights groups already have said they fear military participation might mean a return to the deadly anti-leftist repression of last decade, when at least 8,900 people were arrested and vanished without a trace. They are presumed executed.

The Buenos Aires daily newspaper Clarin, quoting government sources, said Alfonsin’s decree gives military intelligence agencies authority to conduct domestic surveillance - which previously was illegal.

Update hourly