Peruvian army SWAT teams stormed the occupied residence of the Japanese ambassador in Lima, Peru, on Tuesday, ending a four-month hostage stalemate in an eruption of smoke and gunfire.
All but one of the 72 hostages were rescued, and 14 Marxist guerrillas who had held them died in the assault, as did a hostage and two soldiers, according to Peru’s president.
No rebels got out of the residence alive, according to Peruvian television reports.
The raid appeared to be a complete surprise to the rebels, after months of inconclusive international globe-trotting by Japanese and Peruvian leaders seeking a peaceful settlement.
In the end, the rebels of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement refused offers of safe passage to Cuba or the Dominican Republic unless they obtained their principal goal: the release of hundreds of their comrades held in Peruvian prisons.
The violent end of a crisis that had threatened Peru’s economic and political stability initially appeared to shore up President Alberto Fujimori at home and abroad, although Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto said his country had not been informed in advance of the attack.
“There was no other way out,” Fujimori said after the attack by a 150-man assault team. He confirmed that the one captive who died was Supreme Court Justice Carlos Giusti.
The swat team split up into three parts to conduct the attack. One group blasted open the mansion’s front door with explosives, another attacked from the rear, and a third group climbed onto the roof and shepherded the hostages away to ambulances waiting on a nearby street.
Peruvian soldiers began the attack at about 3:30 p.m., according to wire service reports and the local radio. A huge explosion rocked the graceful residence and surrounding San Isidro, a fashionable Lima neighborhood that had become an armed camp of soldiers and police in recent months.
The Peruvian national television broke into regular programming almost immediately, broadcasting scenes of smoke billowing from the building and jubilant soldiers ripping the rebel flag from the compound.
Few details were immediately known about how the assault unfolded, but it obviously reflected detailed knowledge of the situation inside the compound, presumably gained from interviews with hostages who had been released, and perhaps from electronic surveillance.
Fujimori, wearing a flak jacket over his customary formal white shirt, arrived shortly after the gunfire stopped and strode victoriously in front of the newly liberated hostages and his troops for a victory ceremony, which included the playing of the Peruvian national anthem.
The Japanese government, a major source of foreign aid to Peru that had long urged Fujimori to seek a peaceful resolution, was immediately supportive of the raid. “There should be no one who can criticize President Fujimori for this decision,” Prime Minister Hashimoto told reporters in Tokyo.
In Washington, Defense Secretary William Cohen said, “They acted responsibly.”
The Clinton administration had supported Fujimori throughout the crisis, but its offer of technical assistance in any storming of the compound was turned down, at least publicly. The Peruvian army has received American military support over the years, but it also received military material and advice from the Soviet Union and more recently from Russia and Belorussia.
First reports in the Peruvian media strongly suggested that Nestor Cerpa Cartolini, the leader of the rebels in the compound and the military and political leader of the entire movement, had been killed in the attack.
His death leaves the group, most of whose members are in jail, virtually leaderless. The competing and far more radical Shining Path rebels are still at war with the government, but that group has not made any serious attacks in recent months.
Graphic: Peru hostage drama ends