* Opposition leader Rosales seeks asylum in Peru
* Chavez has pushed opposition hard after election wins (Updates with Rosales ally, lawyer, Venezuelan minister)
LIMA, April 21 (Reuters) - 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 Reuters.
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 him arrested.
“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 for democracy.”
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 2002.
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 November.
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 government officials. (Additional reporting by Dana Ford in Lima and Brian Ellsworth and Frank Jack Daniel in Caracas; Editing by Kieran Murray and Chris Wilson)
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