Hostage Standoff Persists At Costa Rica's High Court

GUNMEN who may be linked to Latin America's cocaine mafia have held 18 of Costa Rica's 22 Supreme Court justices hostage since April 26.

The four gunmen, who are calling themselves "The Commando of Death," seized 24 people. One justice, Jesus Ramirez, who was said to have health problems, was freed April 27 and taken to a hospital.

The gunmen slashed their ransom demand from $20 million to $8 million and asked for safe conduct to Brazil, which has no extradition treaty with Costa Rica, officials said April 27.

The group's leader has been identified as an employee of the justice system, and authorities said he borrowed the weapons used in the raid from an unsuspecting police officer.

Costa Rican and Colombian officials have speculated that the four men who stormed the Supreme Court building have connections to Colombia's Medellin cocaine cartel and are seeking release of four cartel members being held in Costa Rica.

The four Colombians, who remain in custody in Costa Rica, were arrested in September as part of a worldwide crackdown on cocaine traffickers.

Colombia said it was sending anti-terrorist specialists to Costa Rica, and Colombian President Cesar Gaviria Trujillo conferred by telephone with Costa Rican President Rafael Angel Calderon regarding the situation. Venezuela Strikes Back

The nation's 183,000 public school teachers went on strike April 26, paralyzing classes for 6 million students and launching a third week of labor problems in Venezuela.

After a week of talks, teachers rejected the Education Ministry's last offer April 23.

Teachers, whose monthly salaries range from $154 to $243, are seeking a 150 percent pay hike. The Education Ministry's last offer is a 60 percent raise.

Labor Minister Ruben Rodriguez said talks would continue. If the strike drags on, the government could resort to seeking an arbitrator's decision.

Teachers join 11,000 civil court employees who walked off the job April 21 to protest stalled contract negotiations.

The Judicial Council, an administrative body that directs the country's courts, said it would suspend salaries for strikers.

Meanwhile, the state telephone company, CANTV, signed a contract that gives its 22,500 union employees a 42 percent salary increase over the two years of the agreement. Under the old contract, the workers earned an average salary of $341 per month.

Two weeks ago, bus drivers in the capital, Caracas, struck for 36 hours to call for fare hikes. And the city's civil court employees struck for two days in support of a fellow judge under investigation by a military court. Haiti Rulers Deny Charges

The Haitian military high command April 27 denied all involvement in drug trafficking and said such accusations are part of a defamatory campaign in the foreign press.

The military leaders referred to a report that appeared April 25 in the New York Times.

The article alleged that Haiti's military leaders were involved in drug trafficking. It said that the Army's reluctance to give up the drug money was impeding efforts to restore democracy to Haiti.

"It is not difficult to see that a vast campaign is being carried out by this paper to discredit and destabilize the military institution," a communique said, referring to The New York Times.

United Nations special envoy Dante Caputo has been negotiating with Haiti's de facto government for a return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically elected president of Haiti. Fr. Aristide is living in exile in Washington.

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