Clenching loaded assault weapons as they took their hostage drama into the new year, Peruvian rebels made clear Tuesday that they haven’t budged from their key demand: the release of their comrades from jail.
The tough position, announced to reporters by rebels masked by red bandannas, appeared to override earlier hints that the rebels might moderate their demands. Late Monday, President Alberto Fujimori refused to consider jail releases, but said that if the rebels freed their hostages they might be allowed safe passage to another country.
The rebels revived their demand for the release of about 300 fellow rebels during a nearly two-hour meeting with about 20 journalists - including an Associated Press photographer - who entered the residence for the first time since the crisis began two weeks ago.
On Tuesday afternoon, meanwhile, the rebels released Honduran Ambassador Eduardo Martel and Argentine Consul Juan Antonio Ibanez, leaving 81 hostages in the besieged compound.
It was the first release since Saturday, when the Tupac Amaru guerrillas freed 20 captives.
The two left the residence accompanied by the head of the Red Cross in Peru, Michel Minnig, and were driven away in a police car.
Ibanez said the last thing he did was to say goodby to the rebel commandeer “gentleman to gentleman” and that they wished each other a happy New Year.
“We’re walking a difficult road, but we’re walking,” he said of efforts to end the crisis.
There was no immediate explanation for the release. There had been no unusual activity in the area before the three walked out.
In the meeting with journalists, a masked spokesman, who identified himself as rebel leader Nestor Cerpa, denounced Fujimori’s government, but said the rebels are open to mediation by anybody, including Cuban President Fidel Castro or Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
He also dismissed Fujimori’s hint that the rebels might be allowed to leave the country.
“If I had wanted to leave I would have left clandestinely, as surely many dedicated people have done,” he said.
Four haggard-looking hostages, including Japanese Ambassador Morihisa Aoki, also met with the journalists, who entered the residence despite police opposition.
Peruvian Foreign Minister Francisco Tudela said he and other hostages were being treated well.