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

April 4, 1997

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Inmates on Friday released one 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 released a female guard on Friday, the national prison system said. It was not clear why she was released.

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 it had a list of just 10 captives, and that prisoners held nine people after releasing Guzman.

She said the Red Cross is not involved in direct negotiations, but has offered to help implement an agreement to end the crisis.

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

``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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