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Peru officially silent on hostage crisis

Japan, Peru hold discussions

December 20, 1996
fujimori Web posted at: 9:45 a.m. EST (2145 GMT)

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LIMA, Peru (CNN) -- On Friday, as hundreds of hostages began their third day of captivity, the government of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori had yet to make its first official comment on the crisis at the Japanese ambassador's residence.

Rebels from the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) have demanded the release of about 300 jailed comrades.

Some Peruvian news organizations reported Friday that Fujimori had decided not to meet that demand, but there was skepticism about the source of the information -- a one-page, poorly typed, unsigned fax.

The Red Cross has now taken over the lead role as go-between for the rebels and the government, its workers passing through police lines to ferry fruit, bread, ham and cheese to the rebels and hostages.

"The situation inside is difficult. There is overcrowding, it is very hot," Red Cross official Sergio Natarajan said Friday after visiting the hostages with a doctor and a nurse. "Among the illnesses are diabetes, ulcers, heart problems and diarrhea."

The hostage crisis began Tuesday night when about two dozen rebels seized hundreds of guests at a party at the Japanese ambassador's house. They have released nearly 200 hostages, mostly women, but about 380 men still are being held.

In the street outside the residence, crowds held a candlelight vigil through the night.

Peru-Japan discussions

A one-hour emergency meeting was held in Lima between Fujimori and Japanese Foreign Minister Yukihiko Ikeda, who arrived Thursday to help with negotiations.

The embassy residence is legally on Japanese territory, meaning Fujimori would in theory need Tokyo's approval for any assault on the well-fortified building.

Hostage safety is foremost

In a letter written to U.S. President Bill Clinton that was read late Thursday on local television, Fujimori promised that hostage safety will be his top priority, as both sides at the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima braced for a long standoff.


"I want to assure your excellency that I am occupying myself permanently and jointly with my team to achieve a solution as soon as possible to this crisis, the principal objective being the safeguarding of the health and life of those who are inside," Fujimori wrote.

In an attempt to end the standoff, Ecuadorian President Abdala Bucaram late Thursday said he was ready to grant asylum to the terrorists.

"We have stated clearly that if we can be of help, providing the Peruvian government asks for it, we would accede to that," Bucaram said, without elaborating on what kind of asylum he would grant.

The MRTA group Thursday afternoon freed four hostages for medical reasons, and they allowed Red Cross workers to ferry food, water and other supplies to the remaining captives from at least 28 countries.

High tech and savvy

High-tech and savvy, the MRTA curry a Robin Hood image and aspire to emulate Che Guevara, the Latin revolutionary and aide to Cuba's Fidel Castro.

Still, many leaders of the Tupac Amaru -- which is smaller than Peru's Maoist Shining Path movement -- are in jail. Its chief, Victor Polay, was captured in June 1992 and is serving a life sentence. Other top commanders conceded defeat and surrendered in July 1993.

But that hasn't stopped the well-armed and generally educated insurgents from staging a series of high-profile attacks against Peru's conservative government. None, however, has been more audacious than the one this week.

The MRTA have split up the remaining hostages, including many diplomats and dignitaries, into separate rooms. The white- columned residence they occupy is hidden from street view by 10-foot walls topped with an electric fence.

The U.S. and Britain have sent advisers seasoned in hostage negotiations to Peru, but experts cautioned that a military- style assault to free the hostages would be extremely difficult.

Fujimori in a bind

Clearly, Fujimori is in a bind, facing conflicting pressures from international leaders. The U.S. advised against any concessions to the terrorists, while Japan cautioned against any risky attempt to rescue the hostages.

The terrorists have threatened to kill the hostages one by one, issuing a statement demanding the release of hundreds of their comrades, money and safe passage to the Amazonian jungle in eastern Peru.

"We are clear: the liberation of all our comrades, or we die with all the hostages," a rebel who did not give his name told a local radio station. "If the government does not give in, we will begin to execute them."

There are growing indications that Peruvian officials are preparing for a standoff. The local phone company Thursday installed public phones near the site, making it easier for police and negotiators to communicate.

The only officials meeting with the rebels Thursday were four diplomats freed the day before. "We're sort of like hostages on parole," said Ambassador Anthony Vincent of Canada, who returned to the residence to talk with MRTA leader Emilio Huertas.

It remains unclear how the terrorists entered the ambassador's residence and quickly overwhelmed guests celebrating the birthday of Japanese Emperor Akihito.

There are reports they disguised themselves as waiters, carrying champagne and food. But some Peruvian media quoted police as saying they entered the house by blowing a hole in an wall of an adjoining house and scaling another section of a wall from a clinic parking lot.

Police Thursday held for investigation 14 of the 25 white- jacketed waiters freed by the terrorists shortly after the takeover.

Correspondent Susan Candiotti and Reuters contributed to this report.


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