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Cash Clouds Peru's Past, Future

Peru's former president denied charges he stole gold from the state's vaults, as a man running to succeed him rebuffed corruption charges.

Attorney General Nelly Calderon said Wednesday that Peru has begun investigating allegations that disgraced former President Alberto Fujimori stole $1 billion, some in gold ingots, before fleeing to Japan last year.

Meanwhile, presidential front-runner Alejandro Toledo hit back at questions about why his party moved hundreds of thousands of dollars to a U.S. account last year, saying he had nothing to hide and his hands were clean.

Just months after narrowly beating Toledo to secure a third term in a tainted election, Fujimori went into self-imposed exile in Japan in November amid mounting corruption scandals surrounding Vladimiro Montesinos, his former spy chief. Montesinos fled in October from several criminal charges, including extortion and arms dealing.

While many Peruvians believe Fujimori was in some way linked to Montesinos' web of corruption, the only charge he currently faces is abandonment of office and dereliction of duty for fleeing the country.

No evidence has been presented showing he participated directly in corrupt acts.

Calderon's investigation follows lawmaker David Waisman's claim last week that a witness told investigators Fujimori stole $1 billion from Peru, some of it in gold bars from the Central Bank.

Waisman heads a congressional probe into the origins of multimillion-dollar bank accounts linked to Montesinos. He refused to identify the witness and provided no other details.

Waisman's remarks have sparked a public buzz over whether Fujimori could have pulled off such a feat. But they have also been questioned by some of his own colleagues.

Waisman, re-elected to Congress in April, is also a vice presidential candidate on Toledo's ticket.

Congresswoman Anel Townsend, a leading member of Waisman's committee, said her colleague's remarks were made independently of the committee. She noted that "he has been making statements on his own for a while."

The Central Bank released a statement Wednesday denying "categorically that gold ingots, cash or anything else of value have been taken" from its vaults.

Fujimori dismissed Waisman's claims as "ridiculous and absurd." "I would have needed no less than 10 cargo planes," he said in a letter to Peruvian media from Japan.

Since the collapse in November of Fujimori's 10-year autocratic rule, politicians of all stripes have eagerly attacked the former leader, hoping to claim the title of biggest Fujimori basher.

Several dozen congressional committees are competing to investigate Fujimori and Montesinos. The prosecutor's office and a special state's attorney are investigating both men as well.

Montesinos is believed to have amassed a fortune through a criminal network that permeated Peru's government, Congress, courts and armed forces.

Authorities so far have discovered $105 million in bank accounts liked to Montesinos in Switzerland alone. No bank accounts under Fujimori's name have been found.

Peru has submitted an extradition request for Fujimori, but the Japanese government has recognized Fujimori — the son of Japanese immigrants — as a Japanese citizen and appears unlikely to force him to return.

Toledo, a centrist free-marketeer finished first in the April 8 elections but was forced into a runoff, expected on June 3, by leftist ex-President Alan Garcia. — He currently leads Garcia by up to 10 points in nationwide opinion polls.

Toledo was dogged by allegations of sleaze during the first round but questions emerged over his handling of party funds at the weekend when a popular television show host and novelist, Jaime Bayly, asked on air why $700,000 had been transferred to the U.S. bank account of Toledo's nephew and aide, Jorge.

Toledo said tension over the 2000 elections, which he said were rigged against him by Fujimori, made him fear for his safety and prompted him to move cash abroad to ensure it was safe.

In similar vein, he has rejected charges he fathered a daughter 13 years ago but refused to recognize her, and allegations he tested positive for cocaine in 1998 after reportedly being seen in a sleazy Lima hotel with three women.

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