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Peru rebels free 225 hostages, including 7 Americans

December 23, 1996

LIMA (AP) _ Marxist rebels held a pared down group of 140 valuable hostages today at the Japanese ambassador’s residence and settled in for a sixth day of tough bargaining. Their ``Christmas gesture″ of freeing 225 VIPs brought no immediate concessions from Peru’s government.

The Tupac Amaru rebels are demanding the government release about 300 of their jailed comrades. President Alberto Fujimori has refused.

The hostages freed Sunday night appeared weary as they filed out the front door of the residence and boarded green buses and white vans that took them to a nearby hospital. Some waved from bus windows while thousands of supporters in the streets shouted joyfully.

A U.S. Embassy official said all American hostages _ seven officials from the embassy and the U.S. Agency for International Development _ were believed released.

In Washington, White House press secretary Mike McCurry said President Clinton welcomed the release of the Americans and called for the remaining hostages to be freed immediately.

``The United States expresses its great appreciation to the government of President Fujimori for the support and consideration given to the Americans who were held, to their families, and to the entire American community in Peru,″ McCurry said in a statement.

The Red Cross said 140 men were still inside, mostly Peruvian officials and Japanese businessmen. Ambassadors from Japan, Malaysia, Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Uruguay also remained.

Fujimori’s younger brother, Pedro, is among those still held, the El Comercio newspaper quoted the president’s former wife, Susana Higuchi, as saying.

While the rebels described the release as a ``Christmas gesture,″ it undoubtedly will make it easier for the kidnappers, who number fewer than 20, to guard their captives.

In Tokyo today, celebrations marking the birthday of Emperor Akihito were canceled out of respect for the hostages.

``I ardently hope that everything will be brought under control and that all of the hostages will be released without harm as soon as possible,″ Akihito, who turned 63, said in a statement.

The rebels captured more than 500 men and women during a gala reception Tuesday night marking the emperor’s birthday. About 170 of them, including all of the women, were freed within hours and 38 more were released Friday.

Those released Sunday night slowly walked to freedom. A few looked faint and faltered, but some smiled under the glare of television lights. Fujimori greeted them at the hospital and most went home immediately.

``I’m going to get a bath,″ said Estuardo Marrou, a business professor at Lima’s Pacific University. ``We’re going to sleep all day.″

Conditions inside the residence were cramped, other freed hostages said. Fifty people were held in one 30-square-yard room, they said, and hostages slept in rows while guerrillas slumped in a corner of the room kept guard.

``We tried to keep ourselves busy, organizing brigades for cleaning bathrooms, floors,″ said Fernando Gonzalez-Vigil, an economics professor at Pacific University. ``You can’t imagine how many things can be done if you have nothing to do.″

Their liberation was sudden. Fujimori had announced Saturday night that he would not free imprisoned rebels but the kidnappers made no comment until they announced the release: They described Fujimori’s comments as ``confrontational language.″

The rebels reiterated their demand for the release of jailed Tupac Amaru members and also called for negotiations toward what they termed a just peace.

Fujimori said Saturday night that he wanted the crisis settled peacefully, and was willing to consider ``a way out ... with full guarantees″ for the kidnappers. First, however, he insisted they release all hostages and lay down arms.

``This type of negotiation takes a long time,″ said one released hostage, Nelson Garcia.

Alejandro Toledo, a hostage who was freed earlier, said he spoke Saturday with Japan’s Foreign Minister Yukihiko Ikeda and with Fujimori’s designated troubleshooter Domingo Palermo. All agreed a peaceful settlement was needed, he said. Ikeda returned to Japan on Sunday.

What the Tupac Amaru group really wants, Toledo said, is an amnesty that would allow its members to participate in public life, as has happened in various Latin America countries including Guatemala, Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia and Venezuela.

Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto has said he backs Fujimori’s call for terrorists to lay down their arms.

``Of course we’re very glad at the release, but we’re concerned that the burden on those remaining in custody will become tougher,″ Hashimoto told Japanese reporters today, according to national broadcaster NHK.

An attempt to rescue hostages by force would be ``insane,″ Toledo told The Associated Press, because rebels are ``armed to the teeth.″ Rooms in the two-story building are mined, as is the roof.

He said the rebels had anti-tank guns and wore backpacks filled with explosives that can be set off by pulling a cord on their chest.

A large number of Peruvians are of Japanese descent and the Japanese have a high profile as major investors in Peru, making them political targets as well as a source of extortion money.

A London newspaper reported the rebels were demanding billions of dollars in ransom from big Japanese corporations. The Independent on Sunday, quoting unidentified Western diplomats, said the rebels have been negotiating by mobile phone for the money.

Spokeswoman Christine Winterburn says British Embassy officials have heard nothing about such negotiations. The Japanese Embassy has not commented.

The U.S. Embassy identified the released Americans as: Embassy officials Jim Wagner, political officer; John Riddle, economic officer; and John Crowe, anti-drug officer; and U.S. AID officials David Bayer; Mike Maxey; Dan Boyd; and Kris Merschrod. Hometowns were not immediately available.

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