The world's long war against terrorist hostage-taking has produced few obvious triumphs. But now there's another success arguably equal to Israel's famous 1976 rescue at Entebbe, Uganda, of hijacked air travelers: Lima, Peru.
Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori's stunning April 22 raid on Lima's besieged Japanese ambassador's residence freed more than 70 hostages held by Marxist guerrillas and may well stand as a textbook example of how to conduct such operations. Even Japan is displaying unmistakable satisfaction with the operation - despite Tokyo's months of cautioning against just such an armed strike.
Right or not, the raid - with its minimal bloodshed - could strengthen the hand of nations such as the United States, which publicly call for no dealing with terrorists. If nothing else, it may turn Mr. Fujimori into a legend in his own country and one of the few Latin American leaders of the late 20th century with international fame.
Long criticized for his authoritarian ways, Fujimori's task now will be to head off further guerrilla attacks. He must also clean up Peru's image at a time when its economy is struggling and the country has embarked on a major drive to attract foreign investment.
"We have to make Peru more democratic, demilitarize the country and be more self-critical," says ex-opposition congressman and leading lawyer Javier Valle-Riestra. "At all costs, we must avoid triumphalism."
Avoiding triumphalism is not the same thing as denying success, however. The relatively low cost of the raid is unusual when measured against many similar rescue attempts.
One of the defining moments of modern terrorism, for instance, was the Palestinian raid on the Olympic village in Munich, Germany, in 1972. It ended badly: A shootout with West German authorities left all nine Israeli athlete hostages dead, as well as five Palestinian hostage-takers.
In 1980, leftist activists seized the Spanish embassy in Guatemala. An ensuing government attack led to much bloodshed. In 1985, leftist guerrillas seized the Justice Palace in Colombia. Casualties after an Army attack included 11 Colombian Supreme Court justices.
Nor is the US record in this area impressive. The 1980 attempt to rescue hostages held at the US embassy in Iran ended when a helicopter and a transport plane collided and burst into flame in the desert.
Israel's Entebbe raid, in which most of the 102 passengers from a hijacked Air France jetliner were rescued, still stands as a notable success. Fujimori's strike in Peru seems comparable, at least so far.
The full story of the operation has yet to be told, however, and all 14 Tpac Amaru rebels were killed in the attack.
The four-month siege, the longest-running hostage crisis in Latin America, kept Peru in world headlines longer than any other event in the country's history. Now, with the crisis behind them, Peruvians are beginning to draw conclusions from the experience.
Despite the violent end members of the Tpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) met at the hands of crack paratroopers, analysts are warning that the crisis may spur fresh guerrilla violence in Peru.
Isaac Velazco, the MRTA's spokesman in Europe, vowed the rebels would attack government interests in revenge, stating "the armed struggle will continue as long as there is injustice." Local TV reporters recently filmed another, heavily armed group of MRTA rebels in the central jungle. Meanwhile, Peru's other guerrilla movement, the Maoist Shining Path, this week bombed three government offices in the capital.
Many observers are warning against a crack-down and instead urge the government to shore up independent institutions and create more jobs to ease the country's major unemployment.
The surprise takeover of the residence by a handful of MRTA rebels headed by guerrilla leader Nestor Cerpa Cartolini Dec. 17 was a major blow to Peru's efforts to convince the world that its guerrilla war was over and shrug off its banana republic image.
Investors will now have to be coaxed back with the assurance that this kind of situation will not occur again. Foreign companies operating in Peru already spend heavily on security due to the high crime rate.
Peru will also have some explaining to do to the Japanese government for having invaded what is technically Japanese territory without prior consent.
While the US State Department praised Mr. Fujimori for not having bowed to terrorism, Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto's grim expression was more than eloquent when he complained he had not been notified beforehand of the rescue plan.
But diplomatic feathers were smoothed when all 24 of the Japanese being held hostage in the compound were rescued safe and sound. "It was a good opportunity to move in," Hashimoto said. "I wish to give my heartfelt thanks to President Fujimori for saving all the hostages."
In the end, with negotiations deadlocked and the rebels refusing to allow medical check-ups for the hostages, it looked as if the Peruvian government had little choice but to act.
"The situation had bogged down," says Raul Gonzales, a Lima-based sociologist who has studied the movement. "Cerpa knew how to lead a military operation to get inside the residence, but was unable to find a way out, as that was a more demanding, political matter."
At the same time, Fujimori had come under fire recently for reports of killings and torture by a paramilitary group plus accusations that his top adviser was involved in drug trafficking. Reports of corruption within state companies are also on the rise, while Peruvians have reacted warily to Fujimori's intentions to run for an unprecedented third consecutive term - a move prohibited by the Constitution.
Mr. Fujimori reacted by sacking his interior minister and his police chief, lambasting the opposition and, some say, by giving the green light to a plan to storm the ambassador's residence.
The relatively low death toll - one hostage, two soldiers, and all 14 rebels died - made the half-hour military operation look highly efficient, coming as it did by surprise, when most of the guerrillas were playing soccer after lunch.
"Fujimori was cornered by the worst crisis of his government," said Fernando Rospigliosi, an analyst for the Institute of Peruvian Studies in Lima. "This will probably help his popularity ratings and allow him to cover up human rights abuses within the military."
The Peru Crisis: a Chronology
Dec. 17, 1996: Fourteen Tpac Amaru rebels swarm into the Japanese ambassador's home in Lima and capture more than 500 people, including government officials and foreign diplomats, attending a cocktail party. The rebels release about 80 women and elderly men soon after.
Dec. 18: The guerrillas threaten to start killing hostages unless the Peruvian government releases up to 500 jailed comrades.
Dec. 19: Four ambassadors are released to be a "communications channel" between the rebels and the government. Electricity, water, and phone services to the residence are cut off.
Dec. 20: Rebels release 38 more hostages.
Dec. 21: Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, in a televised speech, refuses to make concessions to the rebels but says he will study a nonviolent "way out" if the guerrillas lay down their arms and free all hostages.
Dec. 22: The guerrillas release 225 hostages not linked to the government as a "Christmas gesture."
Dec. 24: Rebels release Uruguay's ambassador after his country frees two MRTA prisoners.
Dec. 25: A Japanese diplomat is released for medical reasons.
Dec. 26: Explosion - believed to be an animal triggering a mine - at the residence. Later the Guatemalan ambassador is freed.
Dec. 28: Government negotiator Domingo Palermo enters the residence for the first face-to-face negotiations with the MRTA. The rebels release 20 hostages.
Dec. 31: The Honduran ambassador and an Argentine diplomat are freed.
Jan. 1, 1997: Rebels release seven captives, lowering hostage total to 74.
Jan. 12: A planned meeting between Palermo and rebel leader Nestor Cerpa Cartolini is called off as rebels insist the talks center on the release of jailed MRTA members. Palermo proposes a "guarantor commission" made up of the government, MRTA, Red Cross, and Peruvian Bishop Juan Luis Cipriani.
Jan. 15: Rebels agree to commission as long as everything - including freedom for jailed comrades - be on the table.
Jan. 17: Rebels free the head of the Delta special forces unit of Peru's antiterrorist police, on medical grounds.
Jan. 26: The general of national police is freed after faking an illness. He gives Peru logistical information on rebels.
Feb. 11: Organized talks between two sides begin.
Feb. 20: Rebel leader Cerpa attends talks for the first time.
March 3: Mr. Fujimori travels to Cuba to request asylum for the rebels.
March 4: Peruvian government proposes plan to free hostages and send rebels to Cuba.
March 6: Rebels call off next round of talks, accusing the government of trying to tunnel into the compound. Peru denies the accusation, but diplomats and news media confirm excavation.
March 12: Talks break down over the rebels' demand that their comrades be released from jail.
March 18: The Japanese foreign minister begins talks in Peru, Cuba, and Dominican Republic. Reports indicate Peru has agreed to review sentences of jailed rebels not imprisoned for violent crimes and that rebels have agreed to accept Cuba's offer of asylum.
March 21: Mediators outline a tentative settlement to end the standoff whereby rebels would release the hostages and travel to Cuba in exchange for early parole for some jailed comrades. Fujimori vehemently denies there was any agreement.
April 20: Peru's interior minister and national police chief resign suddenly, citing security lapses that allowed the rebels to seize hostages. Fujimori replaces them with two hard-line generals.
April 22: Peruvian troops storm the Japanese ambassador's residence, killing all 14 of the rebels. One hostage later dies and two soldiers are also killed.
- Compiled by a staff writer