LIMA, Peru -- Marxist rebels released the ambassadors of the Dominican Republic and Malaysia and 18 other hostages yesterday after a Peruvian Cabinet official entered the residence of the Japanese ambassador in what appeared to be the first direct contact between the rebels and the government.
Dressed in business suits and looking surprisingly refreshed and composed, the freed hostages hugged one another as they left the residence, then waved to other hostages who watched from second-floor windows.
In a communique, the guerrillas of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement said the release of 20 of their remaining 103 hostages -- most of whom were Japanese businessmen and low-level Peruvian diplomats -- was designed "as a gesture of good will."
It was the largest hostage release since the rebels freed 225 people last Sunday.
The rebels have sporadically released more than 450 people since they stormed a diplomatic party given by the Japanese ambassador in honor of the emperor of Japan on Dec. 17, and their remaining captives include the ambassadors of Japan, Honduras and Bolivia.
The government remained silent about what the Cabinet official, Education Minister Domingo Palermo, said to the rebels during his four-hour visit to the compound, and there was no suggestion that any government concessions had been promised.
But Palermo appeared to be in high spirits walking beside Bishop Juan Luis Cipriani as the two left the residence late yesterday afternoon, and Ambassadors Jose Diaz Valdepares of the Dominican Republican and Ahmad Mokhtar of Malaysia were freed less than 20 minutes later.
Diaz Valdepares suffers from diabetes, and he was considered a potential health problem for the rebels.
Mokhtar was released only a day after Malaysian Foreign Minister Abdullah Badawi left Peru after a three-day visit, but there was no indication that a separate deal was reached between the rebels and the Malaysian government for his release.
President Alberto Fujimori appointed Palermo as his representative at the beginning of the crisis, and the education minister has met regularly with Michel Minnig, the Red Cross representative who shuttles daily between the compound and government offices.
But Palermo's entrance into the compound shortly before 1 p.m. was the first time he or any other government representative had entered the building since the hostage-taking.
The very fact that he did not fear being taken hostage himself demonstrated that the government and rebels had reached some kind of understanding, at least to talk.
Fujimori has spoken publicly only once since the crisis began almost two weeks ago, and he has refused to negotiate.
He has called on the rebels to drop their arms and release every hostage, and he said that only then would the government consider safe passage for the guerrillas.
For their part, the Tupac Amaru hostage-takers have demanded the release of more than 300 of their comrades held in Peruvian jails and safe passage to a haven deep in the Andes.
As many as 20 guerrillas still hold the three ambassadors, along with more than 20 senior Peruvian military and police officers, two Cabinet members, several Supreme Court judges and five congressmen.
In a statement, the Tupac Amaru rebels tried to portray themselves as temperate compared with the more doctrinaire Shining Path, a competing Maoist guerrilla group.
"We have caused casualties just as we have suffered casualties," said the statement, which accused the Peruvian government of sweeping human rights violations, especially in prisons.
Speculation about a negotiated solution has grown in recent days since Cipriani, a close ally of the Peruvian president's from the Andean city of Ayacucho, spent more than seven hours in the compound on Christmas Day.
The bishop denied that he was a mediator, but he has returned to the residence every day since. Yesterday he entered the compound with Minnig two hours before Palermo joined them.
Palermo and Cipriani refused to speak to reporters when they left the compound at 4: 15 p.m., but despite the lingering suspense, commentators on live Peruvian television excitedly speculated that a breakthrough was imminent.
The apparent quickening pace of negotiations came only a day after the government Gazette disclosed that on the day after the hostage-taking, Fujimori had extended emergency powers to the military and security forces in Lima and the adjacent port of Callao for 60 days, allowing soldiers and the police to enter homes without warrants and detain people without charges.
Using the expanded powers, the police have arrested about a dozen people around the country on suspicions that they could be rebel spies, including two women and a man on Friday.
National police units reinforced their forces around the Lima residence in recent days, but the mood of the city has remained generally calm.
Japan has been pressing Fujimori for a nonviolent resolution to the standoff.
Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto told reporters in Tokyo yesterday, "There is little advantage in reaching a compromise with terrorists, but a peaceful solution has become the key word in terms of preserving the lives of the captives."
Pub Date: 12/29/96