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Hostage Hold Up Spotlights Social, Political Crises Facing Peru

Analysts say the country must find way to integrate rebels back into society

The takeover of the Japanese ambassador's residence by Marxist guerrillas last week was a warning bell that sounded despite the government's success in combating Peru's insurgents. The incident underscores the fact that no real solution has been found to bring rebels back into society once the civil war is over.

Founded in 1982 by Victor Polay, a former member of Peru's left-leaning APRA party, the Tpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) has been hit hard by splits and the capture of its top leaders, including Mr. Polay.

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The group, less violent and smaller than Peru's other guerrilla organization, the Maoist Shining Path, has managed to regroup, largely thanks to the millions of dollars the MRTA received in exchange for protecting drug traffickers in their northern jungle stronghold.

Proof of their resilience was the highly organized way the guerrillas took some 400 ministers, congressmen, and foreign diplomats hostage in a matter of minutes last Tuesday.

President Alberto Fujimori, who succeeded in diminishing guerrilla violence as a result of Draconian antiterrorist measures, has seen his image as a winner badly shaken by this turn of events.

This may force him to fine-tune his strategy, which until now has consisted of granting amnesty only to guerrillas who lay down their arms and provide information that leads to the capture of other rebels. This had enabled him to pooh-pooh repeated calls by the MRTA for a peace agreement that leads to their forming a political party.

The rest of Latin America, meanwhile, appears to have learned its lesson. Rebels in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Colombia have all reached peace agreements in recent years, agreements that were not conditioned to prior unilateral disarmament. Nicaragua even went so far as to grant land to ex-Contras, while El Salvador swapped food for arms.

Now some believe Peru is ready to follow suit. "Peruvians want the MRTA to lay down its arms and reincorporate itself into society," said Carlos Tapia, a expert on the movement. "That's the lesson we have learned from this siege."

Peruvians could be excused for feeling war-weary. After all, the 15-year guerrilla war waged by the Shining Path and later the MRTA has claimed more than 30,000 lives, caused $25 billion in damages, and forced 600,000 refugees to flee the countryside.

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However, Mr. Fujimori's announcement Saturday that Lima would not negotiate with the MRTA appeared to hopes of peace. The announcement came after Nestor Cerpa Cartolini - the only MRTA leader not in jail - said the rebels would gradually release all hostages not connected with Peru's government. Mr. Cerpa, who has eluded a 15-year hunt, has demanded the release of about 300 comrades jailed in Peru's notorious prisons, economic reforms, money, and safe passage to the jungle.

As social discontent grows, Fujimori may have few other alternatives besides negotiation.

Fujimori, who swept to reelection last year largely on the basis of his counterinsurgency successes, has seen his popularity plummet this year as a prolonged recession drags on. GNP growth is expected to come in at 1.8 percent this year, down from 7 percent in 1995.

Austerity measures aimed at putting the brakes on inflation have slashed public spending and deepened unemployment in a country where 4 out of every 5 people lack a steady job. Voters have become increasingly embittered by reports of government corruption and the privatization of dozens of state companies.

So when the MRTA struck, many Peruvians saw the attack as a reflection of the country's mood and that there was more at issue than just the takeover.

"This will not end even when everyone has been set free," says Alex Kouri, one of the hostages released last week. "There's a wider issue at stake here: the overall pacification of the country."

Despite Prime Minister Alberto Pandolfi's claims that the takeover was an isolated incident that had no effect on the stability of the country, foreign investors were clearly worried as trading tumbled on the Lima stock exchange. Tour operators claimed booking cancellations were running as high as 30 percent.

And with the streets of Lima's posh San Isidro district under siege from hordes of foreign press from dozens of countries, the glare of unfavorable publicity promises to continue for as long as the rebel holdout lasts.

But, like the ongoing negotiations over the hostages, the road to the rebels' reentry into society is likely to be a long and rocky one.

"They have just shown they're beyond the limits of democracy," former UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar says. "It would be difficult for the MRTA to become a political party after what has happened."

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