Friday, September 23, 2005; Posted: 11:44 p.m.

Gunbattle at robbery suspect's hideout

Puerto Rican nationalist sought in 1983 Wells Fargo robbery

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- A gunbattle erupted Friday as FBI agents surrounded the hideout of a Puerto Rican nationalist leader who went into hiding 15 years ago while awaiting trial for the 1983 robbery of an armored truck depot, police said.

FBI agents have surrounded a farmhouse where Filiberto Ojeda Rios is hiding in the western town of Hormigueros, said police superintendent Pedro Toledo. An FBI agent was wounded in the gunbattle and was taken to a hospital, Toledo told WKAQ radio. He did not say how the gunfight began.

FBI spokesman Louis Feliciano confirmed that agents were conducting an operation in the area but declined to give details.

Toledo said FBI agents had arrested Ojeda Rios' wife. Police were blocking access to a road leading to the farm, he added.

The robbery of the Wells Fargo depot in West Hartford, Connecticut is considered an act of domestic terrorism because it was allegedly carried out by 19 members of the Puerto Rican nationalist group Macheteros, or Cane Cutters, the FBI has said.

Ojeda Rios, the leader of Macheteros, is one of four men still being sought for the robbery. He was released on bail in 1988 after about three years in prison awaiting trial in Connecticut. In 1990, while he was still awaiting trial, he cut off an electronic monitoring bracelet and went into hiding.

He was convicted in absentia in 1992 on charges of robbery, conspiracy and transportation of stolen money and was sentenced to 55 years in prison. Ojeda Rios sometimes grants interviews to Puerto Rican reporters and issues statements in favor of independence for this U.S. Caribbean possession of 4 million people.

Ojedo Rios "is surrounded, and his life is in danger," said Hector Pesquera, a spokesman for the Hostosiano National Independence Movement.

The U.S. Marshalls Service announced in April that U.S. authorities would increase a $500,000 reward for information leading to Ojeda Rios' capture, saying people had been calling to give confidential information. Authorities, however, never announced a new reward.

The FBI initially had complete jurisdiction over the case but the federal agency decided to share it with the U.S. Marshals Service several months ago.

In December, the FBI announced it would offer a $1 million reward for information leading to the capture of Victor Manuel Gerena, a former Wells Fargo guard who allegedly injected two other guards with a sleeping substance to facility the robbery.

Gerena is on the FBI's list of most-wanted fugitives. The FBI increased the reward from $50,000.

Only about $80,000 of the stolen money has been recovered. The government believes most of it was used in Puerto Rico to finance the independence movement.

The two other fugitives are brothers, Avelino and Norberto Gonzalez Claudio.

One man imprisoned in the case, Juan Segarra Palmer, was granted clemency by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1999. He was freed in January 2004 and returned to Puerto Rico, greeted by hundreds of cheering independence supporters.

The United States seized Puerto Rico in the Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but cannot vote for U.S. President, have not voting representation in the U.S. Congress and pay no federal taxes.

Most Puerto Ricans are split between those who support making the island a U.S. state and those who want to keep its status as a U.S. commonwealth. A small but vocal minority supports independence.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.