Fujimori forced to retreat from earlier optimism over siege


PRESIDENT Alberto Fujimori of Peru, on a private visit to the US, found himself again caught in deadlock yesterday with Marxist rebels holding 72 hostages in the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima.

Mr Fujimori, who had earlier spoken optimistically about the group "implicitly" dropping its main demand for the release of jailed comrades, was quickly corrected by the international spokesman for the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) rebels.

There is nothing implicit. Fujimori is misinterpreting what we have said from the beginning - that our global proposal is negotiable," the MRTA spokesman, Mr Isaac Velazco, said in a telephone interview from Hamburg.

Mr Fujimori arrived in Washington on Saturday from Toronto, where he held an emergency summit with the Japanese Prime Minister, Mr Ryutaro Hashimoto.

The two leaders agreed to push for direct talks with the rebels, who have held the Japanese residence since December 17th, but ruled out the guerrillas' demand for the liberation of 400 MRTA members jailed in Peru.

Mr Fujimori put a positive spin on the situation in interviews on Saturday, when he said he was optimistic about talks because the rebels had "implicitly" given ground on their main demand.

"We convinced them they can't push the liberation of MRTA prisoners. It took a lot of time, but we were very patient," Mr Fujimori said in an interview with the Washington Post.

Mr Velazco said, however, that the MRTA was sticking to its bargaining position "100 per cent", although he did hint that talks on other issues might go forward.

Along with freedom for their comrades, the rebels have also demanded improved prison conditions an overhaul of Peru's secret court system for terrorist charges and an end to Mr Fujimori's free market economic reforms.

"In negotiation there have to be concessions. We are not trying to impose on the government but nor do we want the government to impose on us," Mr Velazco said. The leader of the MRTA, who is one of about 15 heavily armed guerrillas holding the mansion in a wealthy Lima suburb, reiterated yesterday that any government move to force them out would end in tragedy.

"We know [an assault by the Peruvian army] would be tragic for the gentlemen held captive - here. We are sorry for them and for their families," Mr Nestor Cerpa Cartolino said in an interview with two Spanish newspapers, El Pais and La Vanguardia.

"We are not afraid. If they decide to use force, they will find every one of us prepared for combat. We are aware that if things turn out this way, we will not leave alive," he said.

Mr Cerpa also told the newspapers that he had been spurred to seize the embassy after his wife, Ms Nancy Gilvonio, was sentenced to life in prison for rebel activity.

"I cannot deny that it was a great impulse, because I love her and I am aware that our children need their mother," he said. The couple have two children.

Before returning to Lima today, Mr Fujimori is scheduled to meet the US Secretary of State, Ms Madeleine Albright, and other State Department officials.

The rebels originally took more than 500 hostages during a lavish cocktail party at the diplomatic mansion but have since freed most of them.

The remaining 72 captives in the mined and booby trapped residence include two Peruvian ministers, the Japanese and Bolivian ambassadors, about two dozen Japanese businessmen and Mr Fujimori's brother, Pedro.

The President said the fact that his own brother was among the embassy hostages was immaterial to his handling of the crisis. "Even if my brother is there, and my brother in law also is hostage, that doesn't change ... the approach," he said.

Since he was first elected in 1990, Mr Fujimori's tough policies of arrests and extended prison terms have nearly ended violence that began with the emergence of the Maoist Shining Path in 1980.