In a “Christmas gesture,” leftist rebels freed 225 hostages Sunday night, including seven Americans. But they kept another 140 captives behind to pressure Peru’s president to meet their demands and shield them from reprisal.
After the last bus had left for the police hospital, Red Cross director Michel Minnig confirmed the figures for those who had been liberated and those who had been left behind.
A U.S. Embassy official said seven Americans - U.S. Embassy and USAID officials were among the 225. All American hostages are believed to have been freed.
Hundreds of Peruvian and foreign officials and businessmen were taken captive Tuesday night by rebels who struck during a gala reception at the Japanese diplomatic residence. The rebels demanded freedom for some 300 of their imprisoned comrades.
The lucky hostages ended their captivity Sunday by walking onto buses that took them through cheering crowds to the nearby police hospital, where they were greeted by President Alberto Fujimori. Most went home immediately.
“I’m delighted. Really happy. This is indescribable,” said Rosa Romero, united with her husband, Antonio, a Peruvian government official. “The five days of his captivity were the longest of my life.”
The liberation was sudden and unexpected. All day, rebels had made no comment on Fujimori’s hard-line stance, broadcast the night before in a nationwide speech, that he would not free imprisoned rebels. That was the rebels’ condition for releasing hostages.
About 9 p.m., buses pulled up to the ambassador’s residence in the exclusive San Isidro neighborhood. Fujimori’s designated troubleshooter, Domingo Palermo, arrived about the same time, as did police SWAT teams.
Lights of TV camera crews from many countries bathed the area in a bright, unnatural glow.
As they departed the house, many hostages walked deliberately and looked somber. Many were wearing the same dark suits they wore when they attended the reception at the Japanese ambassador’s residence Tuesday night, when the Tupac Amaru rebels struck.
When they were safely on the buses, staring out at cheering and waving bystanders, many smiled and waved back.
“Papa! Papa!” cried a child’s voice in the darkness.
It was the first release since the rebels pledged Friday night to free more of the captives “in the next hours and days.”
More than 200 hostages, including all the women, were freed early in the crisis and 38 more were released Friday night.
Earlier Sunday, thousands of Peruvians walked slowly to the ambassador’s residence in support of the hostages.
The march, under Lima’s hazy summer sun, aimed to tell hostages that “all Lima and all Peru are with you, supporting you and telling you, ‘You are not alone,”’ Lima Mayor Alberto Andrade said.
Many Peruvians hoped the first statements by Fujimori and Nestor Cerpa, the rebel leader, both broadcast unexpectedly Saturday night, meant a breakthrough is possible.
Fujimori’s response in his broadcast was characteristically tough. He said he, too, wants the crisis settled peacefully and is willing to consider “a way out … with full guarantees” for the “kidnappers” and “terrorists.”
But rebels first would have to release all hostages - including Peruvian ministers, judges, congressmen and high-level police officials as well as foreign officials - and lay down their arms.
“This way, the possibility of the use of force by the Peruvian state will be dismissed,” Fujimori said.
Alejandro Toledo, a hostage who was freed earlier, said he spoke Saturday with Japanese Foreign Minister Yukihiko Ikeda and with Palermo, the government trouble-shooter. All agree a peaceful settlement is the only way to rescue the hostages, he said.
Toledo, an economist and minor presidential candidate in the 1995 elections who says the other hostages designated him to represent them, also spoke with Cerpa.