Assassination scare clouds papal visit

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The Independent Online

Latin America Correspondent

The Pope arrived in Guatemala City yesterday on his first visit to Central America in 13 years.

Escorted by two Guatemalan fighter jets, the pontiff's plane circled the skies of the capital before touching down at 4.25pm.

Security for the visit was heightened after what was reported as an assassination attempt against his host, President Alvaro Arzu.

The incident raised fears that someone - most fingers pointed to disgruntled Guatemalan military officers - wanted to disrupt the Pope's visit and might try again during his four nights in the capital, day trips to Nicaragua and El Salvador, or a weekend stop-over in Venezuela.

In a bizarre incident 24 hours before the Pope flew in, a milkman drove his pick-up truck into a group of horseback riders, including the newly- elected President, his wife and security men, outside the tourist town of Antigua, 30 miles west of the capital.

The milkman, named as 24-year-old Pedro Haroldo Sas, or Zas, was shot dead by bodyguards after repeatedly trying to drive into Mr Arzu and his horse, injuring one mounted bodyguard and ramming presidential vehicles, according to the official version. The President was unharmed.

The dead man's father insisted it had been nothing more than a traffic accident. "He was working, delivering milk. He had no weapon," he said.

The Interior Minister, Rodolfo Mendoza, said: "This could have been a crazy man but we are not ruling out anything." He added that extra security was in force to protect the Pope.

Foreign diplomats and local priests speculated that military officers, angered by Mr Arzu's dismissal of several hard-line officers since he took office last month, may have hired the milkman as a hitman. In the presidential election run-off, Mr Arzu, a 49-year- old businessman, defeated a candidate widely seen as a front for the former military dictator General Efrain Rios Montt, who was barred from running.

The general, who is also a Protestant evangelist, dedicated to converting Catholics, was in power during the Pope's last visit in 1983. He "welcomed" the pontiff by executing six left-wing suspects for whom the Pope had called for clemency.