President Alberto Fujimori flew to Washington before dawn Thursday for urgent meetings with the Organization of American States as coup rumors unsettled the nation.
Fujimori, who has ruled for a decade, flew out of Lima's international airport on his presidential jet at 2 a.m., only hours after an opposition congressman who had defected to his ranks charged that the army high command was pressuring lawmakers to participate in a plot to provoke a coup within 20 days.
"He will be there for a couple of days and will return to Peru on Saturday," Prime Minister Federico Salas said on Radioprogramas.
He downplayed the coup rumors, saying, "I haven't observed any indications that would make me think we are heading toward a coup d'etat."
The congressman's warning that the army was plotting to restore power to Fujimori's deposed spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, put Peruvians on edge just when it appeared that dialogue was pushing the country toward repairing its damaged democracy.
Eduardo Latorre, the OAS' permanent secretary in Peru, met with Fujimori for nearly two hours in the Government Palace shortly after the congressman's denunciation of the coup plot.
Afterward, he downplayed the congressman's charge, saying it had been mentioned in passing during the meeting with Fujimori. Latorre said Fujimori planned to fly to Washington on Thursday to meet with OAS Secretary General Cesar Gaviria "to discuss the fortification of the democratic process here in Peru."
Unconfirmed news reports said Fujimori also planned to seek meetings with high-ranking officials in the U.S. State Department.
The army's information office issued a statement Wednesday night calling Congressmen Miguel Mendoza's allegations of a coup plot "absolutely false."
Mendoza, who defected from the opposition to join Fujimori's Peru 2000 party, said the army intended to permit the return of Montesinos. He announced Wednesday that he was quitting Fujimori's party, and said joining it had been a mistake.
"I am denouncing that a group of congressmen from Peru 2000 have been pressured to sign letters of resignation, prepared in the army's high command, to form a congressional group in favor of Vladimiro Montesinos," Mendoza said.
He said the purpose "would be to promote disorder within Congress and throughout the country to unleash generalized chaos and carry out a coup d'etat within 20 days, which would allow the return of ... Montesinos.'' A meeting between government and opposition representatives was suspended soon after Mendoza made his allegation. The talks are aimed at repairing Peru's damaged democracy and are being held under the auspices of the OAS.
Montesinos, who fled the country for Panama on Sunday amid a corruption scandal, hand-picked the top commanders of the army, who are believed to be loyal to him.
Fujimori announced Sept. 16 that he would call new elections in which he would not be a candidate. He said he would relinquish power to a new government on July 28, 2001.
The decision was prompted by a corruption scandal surrounding Montesinos, who was caught on videotape apparently bribing an opposition congressman to defect to Fujimori's ranks.
At least 10 lawmakers from Fujimori's Peru 2000 political alliance have abandoned the party since the scandal broke. As of Wednesday, Fujimori's legislative bloc held only 54 seats in the 120-member Congress, eliminating the control he maintained during the last eight years of his 10-year presidency.
Congressman Moises Wolfenson, one of the lawmakers who quit Peru 2000 on Monday, said his decision was not influenced by any outside forces. "There was no type of pressure, as (Mendoza) has alleged," he said.