BUENOS AIRES, JAN. 15 -- A rebel colonel who led a military uprising last year against Argentina's democratic government fled house arrest today after Army tanks were sent to move him to a military base.
Military and political leaders sought to calm concerns that the nation might again be plunged into a crisis as it was nine months ago by the same officer. Insisting that conditions in the ranks remained "normal," the Army High Command declared Lt. Col. Aldo Rico in rebellion, ordered his arrest and said he would be cashiered.
Rico's wife told reporters that her defiant husband had been lightly wounded as he escaped, under still unclear circumstances, from a country club outside Buenos Aires before dawn today. He and a group of military supporters had moved to the club after a military judge freed Rico on Dec. 30 from detention at a military base and placed him under house arrest.
That move, staged as a kind of victory procession by Rico loyalists, caused a political stir. Some interpreted it as a government concession. But officials in the civilian administration of President Raul Alfonsin soon appeared determined to return Rico to detention at a military facility, particularly after press reports described the colonel as hosting large barbecues at the country club, surrounded by about 40 well-armed supporters, including military officers, acting as a personal guard.
The Rico case has posed a special challenge for Army Chief of Staff Jose Caridi, the 56-year-old artillery officer who assumed command after last April's revolt. Gen. Caridi has forcefully backed the call that drew officers around Rico by repeatedly urging official vindication of military repression in the 1970s. But, as Caridi disclosed in an interview today, he has also urged Rico to retire from the Army "in view of the seriousness of the faults committed."
Worried that Rico might resist a transfer back to military custody, Caridi, whose quiet, almost professorial manner contrasts with the colonel's brash personality, moved tanks, armored vehicles and truckloads of troops close to Rico's improvised base in the town of Bella Vista last night. A few hours before dawn reporters in Bella Vista, 30 miles northwest of the capital, heard a burst of shooting that appeared to come from inside the country club.
Two Army officers who turned up at the club in the morning with an order returning the colonel to detention found him gone.
Talking to reporters later in the day, Defense Minister Horacio Juanarena said no Army troops sent to Bella Vista had opened fire. The remark suggested that if Rico had been injured, the fault lay elsewhere.
Trying to play down the whole episode, the minister said it had become "almost a police matter" now that Rico was considered a fugitive. He denied that there had been any "break" in the chain of command, as occurred during the Easter weekend rebellion when officers balked at commands to move against Rico. He also said no signs of unrest in the ranks existed.
Two months after the Easter revolt, Congress adopted a law protecting most officers from prosecution for crimes committed in the crackdown against left-wing guerrillas, the military's "dirty war" of the 1970s. While the legislation represented a victory for Rico and boosted his standing in the military, there are indications the Army believes it was badly embarrassed this time by the decorated Falklands War veteran.
In the interview published today with the local daily La Nacion, Army leader Caridi acknowledged that during the Easter rebellion, Rico had the support of a large part of the military because his call for vindication was widely shared. But now, the general said, the confrontation involved a "personal situation" involving Rico and a small group of "discredited" officers using the fugitive colonel to "evade military rules."
Cesar Jaroslavsky, leader of the ruling Radical Civic Union bloc in the lower house of Congress, drove home the point, saying Rico and his allies had behaved this time in a manner "that more befits circus clowns than members of an armed institution."Special correspondent Richard Kessler contributed to this report.