Paraguay seeks special powers to fight armed group

ASUNCION (Reuters) – Paraguay’s president asked Congress yesterday to impose emergency measures in the north of the country where police and soldiers are hunting for members of an armed leftist group, officials said.

President Fernando Lugo deployed extra police and troops to the area after three civilians and a police officer were killed on Wednesday in a clash with suspected fighters from the small Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP).

Police and government officials say the EPP has about 100 members and operates in remote forested areas in a marijuana-producing region of the impoverished South American country, a major regional supplier of the drug.

The group, suspected of having links to Colombia’s leftist FARC rebels, is accused of at least four kidnappings since 2001 including the high-profile abduction of a cattle rancher released early this year.

Lugo wants lawmakers to approve a bill that would allow the government to order arrests and ban public gatherings and protests in the agricultural provinces of San Pedro, Concepcion, Amambay, Alto Paraguay and Presidente Hayes, which lie along the Brazilian and Bolivian borders.

“We’ve asked for the bill to be dealt with urgently due to the situation we’re seeing in the country … and also that the armed forces have the freedom they need to take action,” Lugo told reporters in Congress.

Lugo, a left-leaning former Roman Catholic bishop, has struggled to push laws through the opposition-controlled Congress but the emergency bill was expected to pass.

“We’ve got a security crisis on our hands,” said Congress leader Miguel Carrizosa. “It’s clear these people (the EPP) don’t mess around and we agree severe measures are needed.”

The last time a similar measure was imposed in Paraguay was in 2002 due to violent anti-government protests against former President Luis Gonzalez Macchi.

It was used frequently during the 35-year dictatorship of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, which ended in 1989.

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