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Former Ambasador Says Chilean Army General Ordered Letelier Killing

January 25, 1989

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) _ A former diplomat testified that he was told the person behind the 1976 assassination of dissident Orlando Letelier is a former government official sought by the United States in the case.

Former envoy Jose Miguel Barros, in testimony before a local judge, said the mastermind was identified to him as Gen. Manuel Contreras Sepulveda, former head of the nation’s secret police.

The U.S. Justice Department for years has been seeking the extradition of Contreras and his top aid, Col. Pedro Espinoza, on charges of ordering the assassination of Letelier and an American aide, Ronnie Moffitt.

The two were killed Sept. 21, 1976, when a remote-control bomb blew up their car in Washington, D.C.

Barros was one of seven former officials questioned last week at the request of the U.S. Justice Department.

Local newspapers carried the testimony in today’s editions, and Barros confirmed the accounts in an interview with The Associated Press.

Barros told Judge Julio Banados that air force Gen. Enrique Montero told him during a meeting in the late 1970s that ″this genius of intelligence mounted an operation to assassinate Letelier.″

Barros said Montero, who was then undersecretary of the Interior Ministry, told him he was referring to Contreras.

At the time of the killing, Contreras was chief of a feared secret police agency, the National Intelligence Directorate.

Barros said that according to his information, military President Augusto Pinochet was not aware of the assassination plot. Barros testified he was told by another participant in the meeting, former Foreign Minister Miguel Schweitzer, that Pinochet was not aware of the alleged plot.

Schweitzer said Pinochet ″asked Contreras three times privately and two more times in front of witnesses whether he had something to do with the Letelier case, and Contreras said no,″ Barros testified.

Pinochet later ordered administrative sanctions against Contreras ″for lying to the president,″ Barros said.

Letelier was a former Cabinet minister and U.S. ambassador for the leftist government toppled by Pinochet in a bloody 1973 coup. He was among Pinochet’s most influential critics abroad.

The Chilean Supreme Court rejected the U.S. extradition request in 1979, saying there was insufficient evidence that Contreras and Espinoza were involved in the assassination.

An American who worked for Contreras’ agency, Michael Townley, confessed in a plea-bargain in Washington to planting the bomb on the order of superiors.

Army Maj. Armando Fernandez Larios fled Chile in 1987 and surrendered to U.S. authorities. He confessed to being an accomplice to the killing and implicated Contreras and Espinoza, both now retired.

The U.S. government has accused Chile of not cooperating in the case and earlier this month invoked a 1914 bilateral treaty that calls for international arbitration of disputes that cannot be resolved by other means.

Foreign Minister Hernan Errazuriz Tuesday criticized the move. ″We energetically reject the implicit pressure in an affair that we are handling seriously and professionally,″ he said.

The government had not decided how to respond to the move, he said.

Under the terms of the 1914 treaty, the dispute would be handed over to a commission associated with the international court of The Hague, Netherlands.