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Killing sparks coup fears

PARAGUAY WAS thrust into the worst turmoil of its 10-year-old democracy yesterday after Vice-President Luis Maria Argana, 64, one of the country's longest-serving politicians, was assassinated in the capital, Asuncion.

The whole city shut down and residents expressed fears of a new military takeover as news spread that gunmen had fired on Mr Argana's four-wheel- drive vehicle as he drove to work yesterday morning.

He was hit by at least 10 bullets in the head and body. "He died at the scene," said Osvaldo Garcia Varesini, director of the hospital, Sanatorio Americano. The director said that one of the bullets penetrated the heart and severed an artery, causing massive bleeding. He was also hit in the arm and liver.

Paraguayan television footage showed the Vice-President slumped on the back seat, his white shirt and tie splattered with blood. A bodyguard in the front passenger seat was also gravely wounded.

Tension rose as troops and police poured into the streets to maintain order when the Vice-President's supporters gathered at the scene of his death. President Raul Cubas urged calm in a nationwide address. He ordered the country's borders closed and began a hunt for Argana's killers. "Paraguay and its people are in need of urgency, order, and tranquillity," the President said later yesterday.

There was little doubt that the killing was the result of a bitter power struggle among politicians of the long-ruling Colorado party, closely tied with the military that ruled for 35 years until 1989 under the dictator Alfredo Stroessner. Mr Argana had been foreign minister and head of the Supreme Court under General Stroessner.

Mr Argana was in line to take over from the President, if the leader were to be removed. Congress began impeachment proceedings against the President last week, accusing him of abuse of power.

President Cubas ordered the release of General Lino Oviedo, who had tried to launch a military coup against the then president, Juan Carlos Wasmosy, in 1996 and was later sentenced to 10 years' jail. General Oviedo's release late last year led to a split within the Colorado party between factions supporting either Mr Cubas or Mr Argana. Paraguayans knew the split was deep but only yesterday did they realise it was deadly.

Mr Argana felt he had been robbed of the party's presidential nomination, and in effect the presidency, in 1993 as a result of a military-inspired intrigue to install Mr Wasmosy as the candidate. Mr Wasmosy won the presidency and ruled until last year.

Mr Argana felt robbed again last year. He was defeated in the party primary for presidential candidate by General Oviedo, who planned to run his campaign from jail but was later barred from the race. Mr Cubas was then given the candidacy, won the presidential election last May and freed General Oviedo later in the year.

Mr Argana's role was becoming increasingly uncomfortable after Congress, despite a Colorado party majority in both chambers, voted to start impeachment proceedings against Mr Cubas. Mr Argana had persuaded his supporters within Congress, although from the same party as the President, to vote in favour of the impeachment move. Mr Cubas' supporters were furious.

There was no indication yesterday who the gunmen were but the authorities blocked all land borders and launched intensive airport checks.

Obituary, Review, page 7