Menem to treat rebellion as an attempted coup

December 05, 1990|By Ian Katz | Ian Katz,Special to The Sun

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Depending on whom you ask, what happened Monday in Argentina was either a coup attempt or an internal military dispute.

The rebel army soldiers who seized the army chief of staff headquarters and three other key installations before surrendering insist that they respect the democratic government of President Carlos Menem. They say they just want a restructured military and for their inspirational leader to be named army chief.

But Mr. Menem didn't buy that assessment. "When they take over military bases, when they attack their comrades in arms, when they mobilize a sector of the community like that, I would qualify it as a coup attempt," he said.

The rebels, known as the Carapintadas, or war-painted faces, want retired Col. Mohamed Ali Seineldin to be named army commander.

Colonel Seineldin, a decorated veteran of the Falklands War, once trained Manuel Antonio Noriega's Panama Defense Forces. He led an uprising at a military barracks in December 1988, and was later forced to retire from the army. But he was invisible during Monday's revolt.

In October, he was sentenced to 60 days in a military prison after writing a letter to Mr. Menem warning of a possible revolt. "He doesn't worry me, and has completely lost his credibility with the Argentine community," Mr. Menem said then.

Colonel Seineldin, 56, has a fervent following. Although his views don't reach fully into the mainstream, signs of support can be found throughout the capital, in graffiti: "Seineldin is sovereignty," and "Seineldin is the fatherland."

The Carapintadas say their movement is based in the army, where they claim to have the support of two-thirds of the non-commissioned officers. They admit their support is weaker in the air force and navy.

Monday's revolt was the fourth staged by the Carapintadas in less than four years.

Mr. Menem, who took office in July 1989, after the three previous rebellions, pardoned Colonel Seineldin and more than 200 other officers last year. Mr. Menem said he wanted to promote national reconciliation after the the revolts and the 1976-83 "dirty war" by dictatorships against alleged leftist subversives. Some of those involved in Monday's revolt have been pardoned by Mr. Menem, who said the perpetrators of this rebellion will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, possibly shot.

Carapintadas involved in rebellions have said their goals are a return to a nationalism and an end to government corruption. Their wish list reportedly includes protection from human rights prosecution, better pay and the removal of officers they don't like. To achieve that, the Carapintadas have said, they and their sympathizers must be given prominent roles in the government.

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