Peru Hostage Crisis Pits Japan Against West's Steadfastness

The Japanese way of dealing with political and corporate kidnapping is generally to win captives' quick release, even if that means acceding to terrorist demands or paying ransom.

Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori may be the son of Japanese immigrants, but this approach is not his style.

Earlier this week in Lima, the Peruvian capital, police units noisily paraded outside the Japanese ambassador's residence, where leftist rebels have held 72 people hostage for 44 days.

Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto quickly spoke out, asking the Peruvian government "not to go too far."

The two leaders will meet tomorrow in Toronto in a summit that may give them the opportunity to coordinate strategy. "What we must confirm is that we must not cave in to terrorism and at the same time seek the release of all captives unharmed and as soon as possible," Mr. Hashimoto told a parliamentary committee yesterday.

Mr. Fujimori also says he wants a peaceful solution, but he seems more willing to stand on principle - refusing to discuss the rebels main demand that he free their imprisoned colleagues. Japanese officials are beginning to voice frustration with the lack of progress in negotiations.

The Peruvian president has also appeared ready to risk confrontation, as evidenced by Monday's show of force and more recent pressure tactics. The Japanese rule out any armed rescue and say their approval is necessary for a police assault, since the property is considered theirs under diplomatic rules.

Japanese commentators and other political opposition leaders support Hashimoto's stand against a violent resolution to the crisis.

In dealing with his country's insurgencies, Fujimori is more known for crackdowns than conciliation. He has imprisoned many rebel leaders, including members of another group, the Shining Path, whose attacks have destabilized the country for years. Analysts say Fujimori has a continuing stake in taking a tough stance in this crisis.

The rebels inside the Japanese residence are members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, known by its Spanish acronym MRTA, a 15-year-old Marxist group.

The MRTA seized the residence during a reception celebrating the birthday of Japanese Emperor Akihito. After initially holding more than 500 people, the hostage-takers have released all but 72.

A third of that group is Japanese, including Ambassador Morihisa Aoki, other diplomats, and company executives. Fujimori's younger brother and his agricultural and foreign ministers are also in the compound.

The MRTA's main demand is the release of about 300 fellow revolutionaries held in Peruvian jails, where they are kept in conditions that independent human rights groups have criticized. The rebels say they won't negotiate over the hostages' release until Fujimori agrees to talk about their comrades.

Japanese analysts acknowledge that paying ransom and acceding to other demands may encourage more hostage-taking and put more lives in jeopardy in the future, but the focus in Japan remains on saving people currently at risk.

Last August, Mamoru Konno, the head of a Sanyo Electric Company subsidiary in the United States, was freed after his company paid a $2-million ransom to kidnappers in Mexico. The payoff prompted some worries about the future safety of other Japanese executives abroad, but there were many more calls for better crisis management and preventive measures.

In a well-known case of political kidnapping in 1977, the Japanese government paid $6 million in ransom and freed prisoners in order to win the release of an airliner hijacked by members of the Japanese Red Army, a radical communist group.

"Saying 'We won't yield' is a Western idea," says Koichi Oizumi, an international relations professor at Tokyo's Nippon University. "Japanese want a peaceful solution, one that puts respect for life first."

Mr. Oizumi acknowledges that the practical impact of this approach usually involves paying ransom, but he says Western countries also get around to talking to terrorists sooner or later.

Mitsuhiro Kagami, a Latin America specialist at the government-backed Institute for Developing Economies in Tokyo, agrees that a "peaceful solution" often means a "financial solution" to hostage situations. Japanese analysts have not missed the parallels to a 1980 incident in Bogota, Colombia, when guerrillas took over an embassy and kept more than a dozen diplomats hostage for two months.

Rebels in that case also demanded that imprisoned comrades be released, but ultimately ended the standoff in exchange for a financial payoff and safe passage to Cuba. "In the case of Peru," he adds, "it's likely the [Peruvian] government will have to say something about improvement of prison conditions - and the Japanese government or Japanese companies will pay some amount of money."

Mr. Kagami, who met with Ambassador Aoki in Lima a day before the emperor's birthday reception, says that Japan's generous support for the Fujimori administration may have been a factor in the rebel's choice of target. During a visit to Peru in August, Hashimoto announced an aid package worth almost $600 million.

Japanese officials are taken with having another national leader of Japanese heritage and Peruvian President Fujimori himself has sought Japanese aid and investment.

In this weekend's summit, Kagami adds, it is likely that Hashimoto will use Japan's aid as a point of leverage in urging Fujimori to avoid using force to resolve the standoff. While Fujimori has often said that he is "100 percent Peruvian," he has also campaigned on his ability to win economic aid and investment from Japan.

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