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Leader of bloody jail takeover demands helicopter, asylum in Cuba

April 4, 1997

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Rebels and common criminals who seized control of a northern prison, killing four guards and taking at least 10 people hostage, today demanded bulletproof vests, a cellular telephone, parachutes and helicopters to take them to freedom.

Their leader, a suspected guerrilla named Omar Manrique Lozano who called himself Commandante Oscar, also said he wanted asylum in Cuba.

At least 10 inmates seized control of the prison in the northern city of Valledupar on Thursday evening, overpowering guards and grabbing weapons reportedly including Galil rifles and grenades. A large number of the prison’s 596 inmates apparently joined the takeover.

In negotiations with the inmates broadcast live over a radio network, the state governor, Cesar Mauricio Pimiento, said today that ``as long as the hostages aren’t freed there is no possibility of negotiation.″

Today, the prisoners released at least one of the hostages, a female guard.

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 along with their remaining hostages.

Prisoners told Red Cross workers on Thursday they held 15 hostages, said Corrine Adam, a Red Cross spokeswoman. But the national prison system said it had a list of just 10 captives _ nine after the guard was released.

The inmates allowed the Red Cross to evacuate the dead guards, four wounded guards and a prison official who suffered a heart attack during the takeover.

``The government has decided not to use force, but the lives of the hostages should be respected,″ Pimiento appealed to the inmates over the Radionet network.

National Ombudsman Jose Fernando Castro arrived in Valledupar but refused to negotiate with inmates until they release a 14-year-old girl among the hostages who was visiting the prison to deliver a birthday invitation.

Rubio said the inmates had seized all the guards’ weapons. A guard who escaped was quoted by the Bogota newspaper El Tiempo as saying the inmates had two Galil rifles, a dozen .38-caliber pistols, grenades and about 1,000 rounds of ammunition.

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

Guards at many of the 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.

Pimiento said about 100 of the Valledupar inmates were guerrillas.

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