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Colombian inmates release one hostage; demand helicopters, asylum in Cuba

April 5, 1997

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Inmates on Friday released two of the hostages they seized in a bloody takeover at a northern prison but demanded bulletproof vests, parachutes and helicopters before they free the rest.

International Red Cross workers removed the bodies of four guards killed when about 10 inmates seized control of the prison in Valledupar on Thursday, overpowering guards and grabbing rifles, pistols and grenades. They took at least 10 hostages.

The inmates’ leader, a suspected leftist guerrilla named Omar Manrique Lozano, also said he wants asylum in Cuba.

A large number of the prison’s 596 inmates apparently joined the takeover.

Inmates on Friday released a female guard and a 14-year-old girl, who had been in the prison delivering a birthday invitation. It was not clear why the guard was released, but the national ombudsman had conditioned his entering the prison to mediate on freedom for the girl.

There was no immediate word on when the ombudsman, Jose Fernando Castro, might begin face-to-face negotiations with the inmate mutineers.

The overcrowded Valledupar prison, built for 120 inmates, is one of at least eight in Colombia where prisoners have rioted over the past two months to demand better conditions, sentence reductions and the ouster of administrators.

Guards at many prisons have held work stoppages to protest government plans to replace them with police because of rampant corruption. Inmates have smuggled everything from drugs and weapons to lobster and caviar into some prisons.

Prisoners told Red Cross workers they held 15 hostages, said Corrine Adam, a Red Cross spokeswoman.

But the national prison system said prisoners held eight people after releasing the guard and 14-year-old Mary Cuellar, whose emotional homecoming was broadcast live by the Radionet network.

Earlier, the network had aired mother’s frantic, tear-choked appeals for the girl’s release as well as serving as a communications link between the inmates and authorities.

The International Red Cross was not involved in direct negotiations, but offered to help implement an eventual agreement to end the crisis, said Adam.

``The government has decided not to use force, but the lives of the hostages should be respected,″ state governor Cesar Mauricio Pimiento appealed to inmates on Radionet radio.

Lozano, 32, was arrested in 1995 and is charged with murder and treason. He is believed to be a member of the National Liberation Army, Colombia’s second largest rebel group, said national prisons spokesman Miller Rubio.

Lozano demanded authorities allow the inmates to leave the prison aboard two helicopters with their hostages, which include three women and the girl, Mary Cuellar.

Rubio said the inmates had seized the guards’ weapons, including 16 Galil rifles, about a dozen .38-caliber pistols, grenades and 1,000 rounds of ammunition.

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