Explosions shake calm of hostage stalemate

 

EXPLOSIONS were heard early yesterday at the besieged Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima, briefly shattering the stillness surrounding the compound.

Two loud booms, possibly gunshots, rang out at about 4 a.m. local time (9.00 a.m. Irish time) and were immediately followed by silence, police and witnesses said. There were no signs of movement at the residence, where Marxist guerrillas have been holding 74 hostages for three weeks.

Television images filmed from a vantage point above the residence showed a man, dressed in combat gear and carrying an automatic rifle, running across the driveway at the front of the compound shortly before the explosions.

Immediately police surrounding the residence moved into a state of alert but did not approach the building.

They were the first explosions heard at the residence since December 26th when a single loud explosion briefly shook the area. That was later said to have been triggered by a domestic animal.

The rebels, who are known to possess automatic rifles and grenade launchers, have mined and booby-trapped the residence in anticipation of any assault by government forces.

The explosions underscored the delicately balanced nature of the crisis, which started 21 days ago when about 20 heavily armed Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) rebels stormed a cocktail party at the residence and took more than 500 guests hostage.

The President, Mr Alberto Fujimori, who has maintained a "no compromises" position throughout the siege, met ministers late into the night to discuss options for bringing about a peaceful end to the crisis.

Mr Fujimori has rejected rebel demands that he free about 400 of their imprisoned comrades.

Mr Fujimori's ex-wife, Ms Susana Higuchi, who attempted to stand against him in the last presidential election, warned him in an interview published in La Nacion yesterday not to negotiate with the Marxist guerrillas.

Ms Higuchi, who shares Mr Fujimori's Japanese ancestry, praised his handling of the three-week-old siege at the Japanese residence in Lima but said she would have dealt with it in a more decisive and tough manner.

Ms Higuchi, who has formed her own political party called 20th Century Harmony, confessed to feeling "indifference" for her former husband rather than hatred.

"It's been 2 1/2 years without dialogue... so in way, I'm worse off than the MRTA," she joked.