Tipped by a hidden radio receiver that rescuers were about to blow their way into the Japanese ambassador’s home, one of the 72 hostages thought it was a joke - gallows humor. For another, the three-minute warning seemed like an eternity.
Downstairs in the reception area, eight rebels wearing the T-shirts of their favorite Peruvian teams were having fun, playing a four-on-four game of soccer with a makeshift ball made out of a rolled-up, taped curtain.
With a boom, the floor suddenly buckled beneath the rebels from a blast set off in a tunnel dug under the reception hall, and 140 commandos rushed in with guns crackling. After four tense months of captivity, the hostages were free, all 14 of their guerrilla captors dead.
Also dead was one hostage, who reportedly suffered a heart attack after being wounded, and two soldiers. But exactly how did Peru’s security forces pull off a raid that rivaled some of the most stunning hostage rescues in years?
With patience, detailed planning and even a bold warning to the hostages just ahead of the raid.
“We’ll free you in three minutes,” authorities reportedly told a retired naval officer who had been able to hide his radio receiver from rebels the entire four months he was in captivity. The hostage, identified by Lima’s El Sol newspaper as retired Adm. Luis Giampietri Rojas, quickly passed the word on to the others.
For Bolivian Ambassador Jorge Gumucio, the wait “seemed like forever.”
Another captive, Roman Catholic priest Juan Julio Wicht, had just finished a game of chess when someone whispered that the rescue was imminent.
“He tells us that they’re going to free us in a few minutes, everything will be OK. I thought it was a joke, because we’ve made a lot of black-humor jokes,” he said.
But Wicht told Peruvian television that he noticed “a lot of troop movement around the residence, more than usual, while the guerrillas were on the ground floor.”
The rebels, many of them teenagers, had been careless. Frustrated by months of being cooped up in the mansion, they had been playing soccer for 20 minutes.
Suddenly the floor exploded below their feet. Police had burrowed under the building over the months since the Dec. 17 takeover, monitoring rebel discussions and movements and planting explosives in the tunnel.
The surprised soccer players - who included rebel leader Nestor Cerpa - grabbed their weapons and tried to run for the stairs, but soldiers gunned them down, President Alberto Fujimori said Wednesday at a news conference.
Commandos entering through upstairs windows and from the roof cornered the three guerrillas who were watching the soccer game from upstairs and another three who were on guard.
One soldier pushed open a door and was felled by automatic rifle fire from a rebel inside. Another was shot dead as he ushered Foreign Minister Francisco Tudela, one of the topranking hostages, to safety across the roof.
But the commandos were everywhere, blasting through the front door, blowing a hole in the roof and even popping up like moles out of a tunnel that let out in the garden.
Unlike the rebels, some of the hostages were ready. They sprawled on the floor and covered their faces so guerrillas couldn’t identify the higher-ranking captives for what they feared would be an execution.
“Don’t move, don’t move,” Japanese Ambassador Morihisa Aoki warned other hostages as they lay choking on billowing smoke while explosions shook the walls.
Somebody dragged a mattress over Aoki’s head. Others covered their heads with books, sheets and pillows. Then they got to their feet and fled, one in his underwear and clutching his trousers.
Elite commandos had plenty of time to plan their split-second raid. And they were painstaking, reportedly slipping unnoticed in civilian clothes into houses near the compound over several weeks and training at a crude wooden replica of the ambassador’s home in the dusty hills outside Lima.
The tunnel, a key in the rescue’s success, led to several points within the compound - including the kitchen, the main reception area and under the tent set up in the back garden for the cocktail party that the rebels stormed on Dec. 17.
Fujimori said commandos had been in the well-ventilated tunnel since Sunday.
The newspaper La Republica said professional miners started building the tunnel in January, with four-man teams working in four-hour shifts. It said police played martial music over huge speakers outside the residence to mask the sound of the digging.
At the time, many speculated the music was part of a psychological warfare campaign against the rebels.
Part of the tunnel reportedly caved in at one point, slightly injuring some of the miners. In March, the rebels said they could hear the tunnel being dug and angrily cut off talks.
A body, apparently that of a guerrilla, lay on a roof of the compound Wednesday morning. The man wore dark trousers and had no shirt. A tree near the body still bore Christmas decorations.
Guns held high in triumph after the raid, the rescuers showed their feeling for the guerrillas by stomping on the red Tupac Amaru rebel flag that had fluttered for so long over the mansion.
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