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Guatemalan ambassador released; 103 still held hostage

December 26, 1996

LIMA, Peru (AP) _ Without warning or explanation, leftist rebels released Guatemala’s ambassador from captivity Thursday despite no apparent progress in efforts to end the standoff.

Ambassador Jose Maria Argueta walked slowly out of the diplomatic compound at 2:25 p.m., accompanied by Red Cross director Michel Minnig, who is helping mediate the crisis.

They approached reporters gathered at a police line, where Minnig identified Argueta. Minnig then returned to the Japanese ambassador’s two-story residence where high-ranking politicians and diplomats have been held for nine days.

The latest release, which reduced the tally of hostages to 103, appeared to be a unilateral gesture by the Tupac Amaru rebels.

It was the second time in two days that an ambassador was freed. On Tuesday, the rebels released the Uruguayan ambassador hours after Uruguay freed two of the rebels’ jailed comrades. Uruguayan officials have denied releasing the prisoners to gain the ambassador’s freedom.

Peru’s government has refused to negotiate directly with the rebels, insisting the rebels first lay down their arms and free all the hostages.

President Alberto Fujimori and Japan’s prime minister criticized Uruguay on Thursday for seeming to grant concessions to the guerrillas. Peru recalled the head of its diplomatic mission to Montevideo in protest.

Uruguayan President Julio Sanguinetti denied there was a connection between freeing two Peruvians _ who were being held for immigration violations _ and the subsequent release of its ambassador, Tabare Bocalandro. Peru had sought the rebels’ extradition on terrorism charges.

``The Uruguayan government did not negotiate in any way with the MRTA (Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement),″ Sanguinetti said. ``Freeing the Peruvians was strictly a judicial ruling.″

Nevertheless, Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto said the timing was suspicious and the ``inevitable result is that negotiations will be even more difficult.″

After Peruvians, the largest group of hostages are Japanese, including Japan’s ambassador to Peru, Morihisha Aoki.

Early Thursday morning, a mysterious explosion was heard inside the compound. Roland Bigler of the Red Cross said the blast ``was provoked by an animal″ and injured no one. He did not elaborate. The humanitarian agency sent a representative inside the grounds after the blast.

Freed hostages have said the rebels have mined or booby-trapped the grounds, so captives should not attempt to escape.

Malaysia’s foreign minister, Abdullah Badawi, arrived Thursday to monitor the fate of that country’s ambassador, Ahmad Mokhtar, one of five ambassadors still held by the rebels.

Tupac Amaru rebels seized the diplomatic residence on Dec. 17 during a gala annual reception in honor of the Japanese emperor’s birthday.

They released more than 430 hostages, but were holding onto the remaining 103 to deter an assault on the compound and pressure Fujimori to release fellow rebels from jail.

Hostages include two Peruvian Cabinet ministers, police generals, members of the Supreme Court, and dozens of Japanese businessmen.

Update hourly