* Opposition leader Rosales seeks asylum in Peru
* Chavez has pushed opposition hard after election wins
(Updates with Rosales ally, lawyer, Venezuelan minister)
By Terry Wade and Marco Aquino
LIMA, April 21 Venezuelan opposition leader
Manuel Rosales has fled to Peru and requested political asylum
to escape corruption charges that he says are retaliation for
his criticism of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Rosales filed the asylum request on Tuesday after arriving
in Lima several days ago with 20 allies who oppose Chavez's
socialist policies, a source close to the situation told
Peruvian President Alan Garcia's right-hand man, Jorge Del
Castillo, is assisting Rosales, the same source said. Del
Castillo was seen by Reuters at Rosales' hotel on Tuesday.
Rosales did not appear in public because Venezuela wants
"This is a witchhunt," Timoteo Zambrano, vice president of
Rosales' Un Nuevo Tiempo party, told reporters. "The powers of
the state have been used to hunt and politically lynch a leader
Peru's Garcia, an ally of Washington and a fervent believer
in free market reforms, has often criticized a new wave of
Latin American left-wing leaders led by Chavez.
Peru's justice minister, Rosario Fernandez, said the asylum
case would be judged on its merits and that Peru would not
simply rubber stamp Rosales' request.
But Rosales has powerful connections. His lawyer is Javier
Valle Riestra, a member of Congress from Garcia's APRA party.
"Peru and the APRA party have a moral obligation to grant
asylum," Valle Riestra said.
Peru has accepted several Venezuelan asylum seekers in
recent years, including a union leader central to efforts to
force Chavez from office that led to a short-lived coup in
Chavez vowed last year to arrest Rosales, and the former
presidential candidate went into hiding last month after
charges of illicit enrichment were filed against him.
"He's a fugitive from justice," said Venezuela's Justice
Minister Tareck El Aissami. "Mechanisms will be activated to
order his international arrest."
PUSHING AGAINST OPPOSITION
Chavez easily beat Rosales in a 2006 presidential election
and remains by far the most popular politician in Venezuela.
Even so, his government has pushed hard against opponents
in recent months, stripping them of powers and filing
corruption charges. The moves have put the opposition on the
defensive after it made gains in regional elections in
Rosales, whose assets were frozen last week, is the most
visible face of Venezuela's fractured opposition and is the
mayor of the country's second-biggest city Maracaibo in the
wealthy oil state of Zulia.
Prosecutors say Rosales cannot explain the source of
$60,000 he made while he was governor of Zulia and an
advertising campaign on state television accuses him of owning
million dollar houses and shopping malls in Miami.
A pretrial hearing originally scheduled for Monday was
postponed after Rosales did not show up. No arrest warrant has
been issued against him.
Corruption is widespread on both sides of Venezuela's
political divide but graft investigations rarely focus on
(Additional reporting by Dana Ford in Lima and Brian
Ellsworth and Frank Jack Daniel in Caracas; Editing by Kieran
Murray and Chris Wilson)