Prague, 19 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - Marxist terrorists took hundreds of international dignitaries and their partners hostage at a diplomatic reception held two days ago in the Peruvian capital Lima. The event is notable because it shatters the belief that Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori had won the war against terrorists.
More than 30,000 people have died in 16 years of warfare between the Peruvian authorities and two rival leftist terrorist groups, the Maoist Shining Path and the smaller Tupac Amaru.
The Lima police say at least 23 self-described "suicide commandos" of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), seized more than 600 hostages at a glittering reception in the Japanese ambassador's residence in honor of the birthday of Japanese Emperor Akahito. It was a precisely executed operation.
President Fujimori was to attend the reception but had been so delayed by a trip to the provinces that the terrorists launched their strike without him.
The terrorists stormed the fortified compound in a multi-pronged attack. While some dynamited a hole in a high garden wall, others threw grenades at the front gate.
Meanwhile, other terrorists dressed as waiters retrieved weapons and gas masks hidden in flower arrangements and a large Christmas cake.
Police attempts to lob tear gas canisters into the compound only affected the hostages. The terrorists were already wearing gas masks.
The terrorists said yesterday they would begin killing their prisoners one by one unless the government agrees to release several hundred jailed members of Tupac Amaru. They were also demanding an unspecified ransom as a "war tax" and a shift in Peru's free-market policies.
The terrorists singled out a Japanese diplomat and Peru's Foreign Minister, Francisco Tudela, to be the first victims.
The terrorists allowed the ambassadors of Greece, Canada and Germany, and a French cultural attache to leave the compound to negotiate on their behalf with the Red Cross and chief government negotiator, Education Minister Domingo Palermo.
Several hours after the siege began, the terrorists released about 170 hostages, including all the women and the elderly, including apparently without realizing it, Fujimori's Japanese-born mother, Rosa, and his sister, Juana. The president's brother, Pedro, is believed to be among the remaining male hostages, as are the ambassadors of Japan, Brazil, Bolivia, Cuba, the Czech Republic, Poland, South Korea, Austria and Venezuela. Other hostages include six U.S. diplomats, the Chief Justice of Peru's Supreme Court, Peru's Minister of Agriculture, six Peruvian legislators, and leading members of the small Japanese community in Peru.
Police estimate the number of hostages at about 250. But the terrorists say they are currently holding some 490.
Analysts in Lima say the hostage-taking poses the worst crisis of Fujimori's presidency. Peruvian authorities claimed they had eliminated Tupac Amaru two years ago, when they captured the group's top commanders. Last year, police arrested 25 Tupac Amaru activists on suspicion they were planning to take Peru's parliament hostage.
Tupac Amaru, founded 16 years ago, was named after an 18th century Indian leader who fought Spanish colonial rule. The group is believed to have several hundred members and operate mainly in the upper Huallaga Valley of eastern Peru. Analysts say Tupac Amaru, though dangerous, has never been as powerful or violent as a larger and more radical group, the Shining Path.
The Shining Path, which is believed to have about 2,000 members, has branded Tupac Amaru a traitor to communism. The two groups have often battled each other over income from local cocaine smugglers.
The assault in Lima is reminiscent of similar sieges elsewhere in Latin America. Twenty-two years ago, Sandinista terrorists in the Nicaraguan capital, Managua, stormed a Christmas party of a prominent businessman and took several hostages, including members of the government. A similar attack took place in Bogota, Colombia, in 1980, when 16 leftist "M-19" terrorists seized the embassy of the Dominican Republic, taking a large part of the diplomatic corps hostage during a reception. That siege lasted 61 days and ended peacefully.
Tupac Amaru issued a statement saying it chose the Japanese embassy to protest "the constant meddling of the Japanese government in Peru."