New Yorker's Escape From Bolivia Still A Mystery

The Associated Press

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It's a smoke and mirrors saga fit for Hollywood, complete with a major movie star, murky reports of a kidnapping and an American fugitive sneaking across the border of a nation unfriendly to the U.S.

Little is being revealed about Jacob Ostreicher's flight from house arrest in Bolivia and into the care of actor-activist Sean Penn.

The New York businessman arrived in the U.S. on Monday after an ordeal that began more than two years ago when he was jailed as part of a money laundering probe into a rice-growing venture. His Orthodox Jewish family, associates in Bolivia and the U.S. State Department are all expressing a mixture of relief and surprise, and not much else.

No one is saying how the 54-year-old fled, or who helped him.

"You'll never find out," Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said Tuesday. If the U.S. was involved, "it was done through layers and layers of cover," he said.

Penn, who last year traveled to La Paz and directly appealed to President Evo Morales to free Ostreicher, said a "humanitarian operation" had been mounted to extract the American "from the corrupt prosecution and imprisonment he was suffering." But his statement in an email to The Associated Press gave no details on how that was done.

The State Department was equally circumspect, while family members said they were being kept in the dark and hadn't spoken with Ostreicher.

Bolivia's government was talking, its officials expressing outrage and warning they could seek his extradition.

Analysts said the chances of bringing back Ostreicher are slim. Noting he won media attention by denouncing from jail an extortion ring that reached into high levels of the government, some speculated his flight might have even enjoyed the government's quiet consent. Bolivia had made no inquiries about Ostreicher's escape as of Tuesday, the State Department said.

His whereabouts weren't known. In the email to the AP, Penn said only that Ostreicher was safe, doing well and receiving medical attention in the actor's company at an undisclosed location.

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