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Peru rebels free 225 hostages, including 7 Americans

December 23, 1996

LIMA, Peru (AP) _ Leftist rebels have released the largest group of hostages since their siege of the Japanese ambassador’s home began six days ago, a ``Christmas gesture″ that only slightly eased pressure on the Peruvian government.

Tupac Amaru rebels still were holding 140 people _ mostly Peruivan officials and Japanese businessmen _ today as shields against reprisal and tools to push the government into releasing their jailed comrades. President Alberto Fujimori has ruled out prisoner releases.

Freed hostages waved from bus windows while relatives in the street shouted with joy. Live television broadcasts showed exhausted-looking hostages filing out the front door and onto green hospital buses.

A U.S. Embassy official said seven Americans _ Embassy and U.S. AID officials _ were among the 225 freed Sunday night. All of the American hostages were believed to be free.

In a statement Sunday, the rebels reiterated their demand for freedom for 300 jailed Tupac Amaru members. They also proposed a dialogue to find common ground to reach what they termed a just peace.

Fujimori said Saturday night that he wanted the crisis settled peacefully, and was willing to consider ``a way out ... with full guarantees″ for the kidnappers. First, however, he insisted they release all hostages _ including Peruvian ministers, judges, congressmen and high-level police officials, as well as foreign diplomats _ and lay down arms.

``This type of negotiation takes a long time,″ said Nelson Garcia, a released hostage.

While the rebels described the release as a ``Christmas gesture,″ the difficulty of guarding so many hostages may have been a factor in the decision to allow so many to leave.

Hundreds of foreign and Peruvian officials as well as businessmen were taken captive Tuesday night by rebels who struck during a gala reception at the diplomatic residence. After the last bus left for the police hospital, Red Cross director Michel Minnig confirmed the figures for those who were liberated and those left behind.

The hostages ended their captivity by walking onto buses that took them through cheering crowds to the nearby hospital, where Fujimori greeted them. Most went home immediately.

``I’m going to get a bath,″ Estuardo Marrou, a business professor at Lima’s Pacific University, said shortly after his release. ``We’re going to sleep all day.″

Other hostages described conditions inside the house as cramped, with 50 people in one 30-square-yard room. People slept in rows while guerrillas slumped in a corner of the room kept guard.

``We tried to keep ourselves busy, organizing brigades for cleaning bathrooms, floors,″ said Fernando Gonzalez-Vigil, an economics professor at Pacific University in Lima. ``You can’t imagine how many things can be done if you have nothing to do.″

Their liberation was sudden. All day Sunday, rebels made no comment on Fujimori’s position broadcast the night before in a nationwide speech that he would not free imprisoned rebels. When they announced the release, the rebels described Fujimori’s comments as ``confrontational language.″

At about 9 p.m. Sunday, buses pulled up to the ambassador’s residence in exclusive San Isidro neighborhood. Fujimori’s designated troubleshooter Domingo Palermo arrived about the same time, as did police SWAT teams.

It was the first release since the rebels pledged Friday night to free more of the captives ``in the next hours and days.″

About 170 hostages, including all of the women, were freed early in the crisis and 38 more were released Friday.

The released men walked slowly along the half block between their prison and the buses that took them to freedom.

A few looked faint and faltered, but some of the former hostages started smiling as they left the darkness of the compund and entered the glare of television lights.

Earlier Sunday, thousands of Peruvians walked slowly to the ambassador’s residence in support of the hostages.

Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto has said he backs Fujimori’s call for terrorists to lay down their arms.

``Of course we’re very glad at the release, but we’re concerned that the burden on those remaining in custody will become tougher,″ Hashimoto told Japanese reporters today, according to national broadcaster NHK.

Alejandro Toledo, a hostage who was freed earlier, said he spoke Saturday with Japan’s Foreign Minister Yukihiko Ikeda and with Palermo. All agreed a peaceful settlement was needed, he said. Ikeda flew home to Japan on Sunday.

What the Tupac Amaru group really wants, Toledo said, is an amnesty that would allow its members to participate in public life, as has happened in various Latin America countries including Guatemala, Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia and Venezuela.

An attempt to rescue hostages by force would be ``insane,″ Toledo told The Associated Press, because rebels are ``armed to the teeth.″ Rooms in the two-story building are mined, as is the roof.

He said the rebels had anti-tank guns and wore backpacks filled with explosives that can be set off by pulling a cord on their chest.

A London newspaper reported the rebels were demanding billions of dollars in ransom from big Japanese corporations. The Independent on Sunday, quoting unidentified Western diplomats, said the rebels have been negotiating by mobile phone for the money.

Spokeswoman Christine Winterburn says British Embassy officials have heard nothing about such negotiations. No one at the Japanese Embassy was available Sunday for comment.

The U.S. Embassy identified the released Americans as: Embassy officials Jim Wagner, political officer; John Riddle, economic officer; and John Crowe, anti-drug officer; and U.S. AID officials David Bayer; Mike Maxey; Dan Boyd; and Kris Merschrod. Hometowns were not immediately available.

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