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Rebels threaten to kill hostages in Peru, starting with minister

December 19, 1996

LIMA, Peru (AP) _ Ringed by army sharpshooters on rooftops, leftist rebels tested Peru’s nerves Wednesday with a vow to start the one-by-one killing of hundreds of diplomats and other VIPs held hostage. They let their deadline for bloodshed pass as negotiations went on.

The dramatic standoff at the Japanese ambassador’s residence moved into a second night, with the Tupac Amaru rebels insisting on freedom for 300 imprisoned comrades, changes in government policy, and money and safe passage to the jungle for the hostage-takers.

The rebels, who infiltrated a Tuesday night party dressed as waiters and seized the guests, said at noon Wednesday they were going to start killing hostages within 20 minutes and had picked the first victim: Peru’s foreign minister, Francisco Tudela.

``We can’t wait any longer,″ rebel commander Emilio Huertas told a Lima television station.

The deadline passed with no killings. The hostages had been divided into groups and put in separate rooms, each guarded by guerrillas with hand grenades.

Huertas late Wednesday afternoon released four more hostages _ the ambassadors of Canada, Greece and Germany and a Peruvian official _ and said more releases were being considered. Late Wednesday night, the rebels released another hostage, an older man who wasn’t identified.

The rebel attack presented an excruciating choice for President Alberto Fujimori, who has cracked down on guerrilla violence to reduce the threat of terrorism and attract foreign investment, especially by the Japanese.

Allowing the rebel occupation to continue, or caving in to their demands, would undermine Fujimori’s tough anti-guerrilla policy. But strong action against the occupiers would go directly against Japanese calls to put the safety of the hostages first. The embassy is Japanese territory and Fujimori would technically need Japanese permission to send in troops.

The incident shook confidence in the Peruvian government _ and the stock market was forced to close three hours early Wednesday after domestic stocks plummeted. Officials said it might not reopen Thursday.

Huertas demanded that Fujimori speak with the rebels, who said they were holding 490 people. About 170 people were released early in the standoff.

The hostages seemed calm, in good shape and adequately fed, a Red Cross doctor said early Thursday near the residence. Red Cross doctor Marc Cortal helped bring supplies to the hostages and rebels, and said he took medicines in as well _ for hypertension, asthma and heart ailments.

Despite rebels’ threats to kill the hostages, ``it’s very tranquil″ inside the residence, Cortal said. ``We spoke with people, collected messages for their families.″

Army troops and police surrounded the compound, which covers an entire block and sits behind a 15-foot-high concrete wall topped by a 10-foot electrical fence. Sharpshooters patrolled the roofs of nearby buildings.

Japan’s foreign minister insisted that lax security was not to blame, and was preparing Thursday to fly to Lima to help resolve the standoff.

``We are thinking first and foremost of the hostages’ safety,″ Yukihiko Ikeda said in Tokyo.

One of the ambassadors released Wednesday, Heribert Woeckel of Germany, said they were freed to bolster communication between the guerrillas and the government.

``We have been released ... to serve as a contact and bridge with the Peruvian government and look for a negotiated solution that will put an end to the hostage situation,″ Woeckel said.

The other freed ambassadors were Anthony Vincent of Canada and Alkiviades Karokis of Greece. The Peruvian was identified as Armando Lecaros, director of bilateral policy for the ministry.

Early Thursday, Vincent and a Peruvian diplomat returned to the residence with a Red Cross representative. They emerged after 30 minutes, and Vincent said official mediation would continue later Thursday through the Red Cross.

The remaining hostages included at least a dozen ambassadors from countries such as Japan, Brazil, Cuba, South Korea, Austria and Venezuela. Peru’s foreign and agriculture ministers, six legislators, the president of the Supreme Court and dozens of Japanese business people also were inside. U.S. Ambassador Dennis Jett and his deputy left the reception about a half-hour before the assault.

An American woman who was released said her husband and six other Americans were inside. She asked not to be identified. The U.S. Embassy reported that four of the Americans worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Fujimori himself traditionally attends the annual reception, and avoided capture only by chance, according to political columnist Manuel D’Ornellas, editor of the pro-Fujimori newspaper Expreso.

``A delay in returning from a trip to the provinces kept him from attending, saving him from the same risk that the rest of the hostages face,″ he said.

Among those released were Fujimori’s mother and sister.

Twenty-three rebels entered the compound at the start of a reception Tuesday night honoring Japanese Emperor Akihito’s birthday. They set off explosions and exchanged gunfire with police for almost an hour. Two hostages and a rebel were reported wounded.

``I heard a loud explosion, then gunfire,″ said Mieko Torii, who was among those released. ``We were told to get down and not move. There was a lot of yelling.″

Huertas warned on Wednesday that his men had mined the grounds around the ambassador’s residence.

``We are clear: the liberation of all our comrades, or we die with all the hostages,″ a rebel who did not give his name told a local radio station in a telephone call from the compound. ``If the government does not give in, we will begin to execute them.″

The Red Cross representative, Michel Minnig, was allowed to enter the compound Wednesday morning to mediate between the rebels and authorities. Later in the day, other Red Cross officials brought water, bread and cheese into the residence at the rebels’ request. They also carried two X-ray machines into the home. The rebels have asked for 20 cellular phones, but it was unclear whether they had been delivered.

The rebels issued a communique Wednesday outlining their demands: the release of all their comrades in prison; transportation for all the rebels to a central jungle; a commitment to change the government’s free-market economic policy; and the payment of an unspecified ``war tax.″

Television cameraman Juan Sumarriva spent the night inside the compound and has been allowed to pass videotape to his station. The hostages passed the cameraman a note asking for medicine, reportedly for hypertension.

In Washington, the State Department condemned the hostage-taking, and White House spokesman Mike McCurry reiterated that U.S. policy rules out negotiating with terrorists and called for the prosecution of the hostage-takers.

A stick of dynamite exploded on a patio at the residence Wednesday morning. There were no reports of any injuries and no other details were available.

Peru’s ombudsman, Jorge Santistevan, said the government had named Education Minister Domingo Palermo as chief negotiator.

Tuesday night, the rebels had called for the intervention of Santistevan and the Rev. Hubert Lanssiers, a Roman Catholic priest from Belgium who is widely respected for his human rights work in Peru.

Update hourly