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World News

Uribe's cousin seeks asylum over Colombia probe

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s cousin sought asylum in Costa Rica on Tuesday after prosecutors ordered him arrested for suspected ties to paramilitary squads in a deepening scandal for the U.S. ally.

Colombian congressman Mario Uribe attends an interview in Bogota in this February 2, 2006 file photo. REUTERS/El Tiempo

The investigation of Mario Uribe, a long-time senator and presidential confidant, is expected to fuel concerns among U.S. Democrats who strongly oppose a Colombian trade deal because of human rights abuses and lingering influence of ex-paramilitary commanders.

The arrest order brings the “para-political” scandal closer to President Uribe as he fends off worries about congressional stability with more than 60 lawmakers under investigation and at least half of those behind bars while prosecutors probe their ties to militias.

“We are in the headquarters of the Costa Rican Embassy in Bogota and we have held talks with the people concerned,” one of Mario Uribe’s attorneys, Jose del Carmen Ortega, told Caracol radio. “This is in process.”

Alvaro Uribe, a close U.S. partner, has reduced violence from Colombia’s four-decades-long conflict by driving back rebels and negotiating the surrender of illegal paramilitaries who massacred peasants and dealt in cocaine in the name of counter-insurgency.

Foreign investment is up and the economy is growing. But the president has struggled recently to convince U.S. Democrats to back a free trade deal as U.S. lawmakers and rights groups worry over paramilitary violence and trade union murders.

A second cousin to the president and a former congressional leader, Mario Uribe was ordered detained after testimony from paramilitary warlords that he asked them to back his senate campaign and help him secure cheap farmland.

“Uribe is being investigated for a meeting he had with former paramilitary commander Salvatore Mancuso before the elections of March 10, 2002, and with Jairo Castillo Peralta, alias ‘Pitirri,’ in November 1998,” it said.

The former lawmaker, who has previously denied any wrongdoing, would be arrested if he does not surrender to the chief prosecutor’s office in Bogota.

Alvaro Uribe, who has received billions in U.S. aid to fight against Latin America’s oldest insurgency, says the investigations show Colombia’s institutions are working. But he clashed with the Supreme Court over its probes.

“This will have an impact,” said Rafael Nieto, a former deputy justice minister who is now a political analyst. “For one he is the president’s relative and secondly he was for years a partner in Uribe’s political fight.”

ACCUSED OF DEALS WITH MILITIAS

Carrying banners and a fake coffin, victims of paramilitary violence rallied outside the embassy to demand that Mario Uribe face justice for the charges he collaborated with warlords accused of atrocities in the darker days of the conflict.

“Truth, Justice and Reparation,” read one banner.

Costa Rica’s foreign ministry declined to comment.

Mario Uribe stepped down from the Senate in last October to protect himself from questions from the Supreme Court, which investigates public officials. But the attorney general has kept up its probe into his ties with militia warlords.

Former paramilitary commanders have testified as part of their peace deal that Uribe worked out deals with militias to help him take control of farmland and also to seek their political backing.

Paramilitary organizations were originally formed by wealthy land owners to counter rebels in areas where state security presence was weak. But their influence soon mushroomed as they took control of large swaths of the Andean country.

Paramilitary commanders disbanded their armies under a deal with Uribe’s government, which allowed them short jail terms for promising to confess their crimes and compensate victims. But rights groups and some U.S. lawmakers worry the former commanders have kept their criminal networks alive.

Additional reporting by John McPhaul in Costa Rica, Editing by Eric Walsh and Bill Trott

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