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More Officials Cast Doubt on Lehder Testimony

November 25, 1991

MIAMI (AP) _ A former U.S. ambassador and the Colombian government have joined a chorus of voices casting doubt on drug trafficker Carlos Lehder’s claims in Manuel Noriega’s drug trial.

Lehder, one of the founders of Colombia’s notorious Medellin drug cartel, has testified for prosecutors that Noriega took bribes to protect the cartel’s cocaine trafficking.

He has also implicated U.S. diplomats, a former Colombian president, Cuba and the former Sandinista government of Nicaragua, touching off strenuous protests from the officials and governments he named.

On the stand today, Lehder acknowledged telling an interviewer last year that he did not know if Cuba was ever actually used for drug shipments. But he repeated his claim that Manuel Pineiro, head of Cuban intelligence, directed cocaine trafficking through Nicaragua. Among his disputed claims last week was an alleged U.S. offer to allow him to continue smuggling cocaine through the Bahamas in exchange for help in arming the Nicaraguan Contra rebels.

The offer came in 1982 or 1983 from the U.S. vice consul in Cali, Colombia, and the diplomat’s superior, Lehder said.

Lewis Tambs, now a professor at Arizona State University, took over the embassy in Bogota in April 1983. He dismissed Lehder’s account.

″No foreign service officials had any contact with drug traffickers, not while I was there,″ Tambs said. ″I doubt the story very much - you have to remember he was not only a dealer (of cocaine), but a consumer as well.″

Lehder testified he decided not to pursue the diplomats’ offer for fear it might be a sting to arrest him - but Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Con Dougherty in Washington said he knew of no such sting.

In Colombia, Lehder had identified Alfonso Lopez Michelsen, a former president, as the cartel’s godfather. He said Lopez Michelsen presided over a 1984 meeting in Panama between the cartel and Noriega.

The Colombian government issued a statement late last week qualifying Lehder’s testimony as ″calumny.″

Lopez Michelsen’s role in the meeting was as an official representative of the government, the former president has said. The conference was designed to bring an end to a wave of drug-related violence that had culminated in the assassination of Colombia’s justice minister.

Lehder has specifically cleared only one official alleged by others to have taken bribes from him - oft-investigated Bahamian Prime Minister Lynden Pindling, whom the witness called ″honest and decent.″

Lehder currently has an estimated $10 million in Bahamian property tied up in confiscation procedures subject to Pindling’s approval, and his attorneys were seeking as late as January 1991 to maintain his control of it.

Almost forgotten in the controversy surrounding Lehder’s charges against others is the case against Noriega.

The ousted Panamanian leader faces up to 140 years in prison if convicted of the 10 drug and racketeering counts he faces for allegedly giving protection to the Medellin cartel.

Update hourly