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Hostages’ ‘guardian angel’ does more than deliver food and succor

December 26, 1996

LIMA, Peru (AP) _ The tear gas hadn’t yet dissipated when Michel Minnig, one of 600 guests at the Japanese ambassador’s home when it was stormed by rebels, presented himself to the guerrillas, offering to act as a go-between.

Hands held high and waving a white handkerchief, Minnig, the newly arrived International Red Cross chief for Peru, walked out of the residence and into the sights of police sharpshooters.

For the past nine days, the 44-year-old Swiss delegate has demonstrated a similar calm, shuttling tirelessly between Peruvian government officials and Tupac Amaru rebels, his overriding priority the hostages’ well-being.

On Thursday, Minnig walked the latest freed hostage, the Guatemalan ambassador, to police lines.

He is the hostages’ ``guardian angel,″ said one freed captive, Peruvian congressman Javier Diez Canseco.

Minnig’s efforts on behalf of the hostages began in the first moments of the crisis. With the hostages forced to the carpet and choking, Minnig shouted to police outside the embassy compound’s walls to stop firing tear gas.

Before Minnig led the women and elderly out that first night, Dec. 17, he entered the darkened compound shining a flashlight on his face so rebels wouldn’t shoot him. The spotlight has never left him.

``Minnig has played a role we have to praise. He’s been an extraordinary man,″ said Estanislao de Grande, the Spanish charge d’affaires, who was among 225 hostages freed five days into the crisis.

In the first 24 hours of the siege, Minnig was the only Red Cross delegate the rebels would allow inside, and he personally hauled 5-gallon bottles of water, as well as bread, cheese and medicine into the compound.

In the ensuing days, Minnig’s succor squad has soothed the anxiety-ridden hostages inside, in addition to seeing that they are fed, and arranging the release of those seriously ill.

The trim, sandy-haired Minnig and the five other Red Cross delegates permitted inside by rebels have carried more than 550 messages from hostages to their families, and delivered another 700 note cards and letters the other way. Minnig personally carries the politically sensitive notes.

A dozen times a day, at all hours, Minnig has shuffled the deserted half-block between the walled compound and police lines, a Red Cross bib over a button-down shirt, pants dragging over his heels, a worn brown leather shoulder bag hanging to his hip and a walkie-talkie in his hand.

Minnig, always terse, periodically addresses the media horde camped nearby through his megaphone. Then he’ll disappear for hours at a time, meeting behind closed doors with government officials.

He and his multilingual expatriate crew are true to the International Red Cross’ 133-year history of absolute neutrality through war, famine, flood and other crises.

Minnig was asked in his first formal media appearance Thursday to comment on the messages he is passing between rebel leader Nestor Cerpa and President Alberto Fujimori’s representative.

``Of course there’ll be no discussing what is said within the channel we are offering,″ he said. ``To do so would be a betrayal and also against the interests of those persons detained.″

Minnig said little more of the crisis, preferring instead to draw attention to the Red Cross’ 12-year role in Peru _ visiting the imprisoned, searching for the disappeared and administering to the needy.

``He is a very intelligent person. He sees the whole situation,″ said Thierry Meyrat, head of the Red Cross in Moscow. ``He is as well very perseverant (and) a very open-minded person.″

As head of the international group’s delegation in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, Minnig earlier this year helped secure the release of more than 100 prisoners detained during the long war with Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Three years ago, he worked to protect persecuted minorities in the Serb-held Bosnian city of Banja Luka, and to track down the disappeared.

In 11 years with the Red Cross before arriving in Lima on Oct. 1, Minnig also worked conflicts in Nicaragua, Burundi, Rwanda, Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon.

A political science and history graduate of Geneva and Lausanne universities, Minnig also has penned an unpublished novel whose title he will not disclose, said colleague Roland Bigler, a Red Cross spokesman.

``It’s a burlesque about the state of the world,″ Bigler said.

Minnig has not responded since the crisis to the pile of interview requests on the desk of his office, whose walls are still largely bare save a big map of Peru.

Instead, he is working night and day to end the siege, said Red Cross spokesman Steven Anderson.

``I don’t think he’s getting a lot of sleep,″ Anderson said.

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