ATLANTA — Struggling to break a four-day impasse, federal officials permitted three prominent Cuban refugees to act as mediators Thursday in negotiations with rioting prisoners holding 94 hostages at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary.
Millionaire emigre businessman Jorge Mas Canosa, poet-writer Armando Valladares and former political prisoner Roberto Martin Perez entered the prison to meet with three of the inmate leaders Thursday evening.
"These people were desired by the (prisoners)," Justice Department spokesman Tom Stewart said. "They do not represent our views, speak for us or represent us in any way."
But both Mas and Valladares have close ties to the Reagan Administration. Mas, 48, a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion, is founder of a powerful anti-Castro lobbying group, the Cuban-American National Foundation.
Backs Radio Marti
He was a key proponent of Radio Marti, the U.S.-funded station that broadcasts into Cuba. He also is a major contributor in local, state and national political races.
Valladares, a political prisoner for 22 years in Cuba's worst prisons, was freed in 1982. He wrote the book "Against All Hope," an international best-seller about the tortures he and others suffered there.
Martin Perez, also a former political prisoner, was freed in May after 27 years. He has mediated prison disputes in Cuba and knows several of the detainees who have taken control of the facility in Atlanta.
As the mediators met with detainees, Weldon Kennedy, the FBI special agent in charge in Atlanta, said he believes a group of leaders was emerging from among the Cubans. "I feel much more comfortable now than we have up until this point. There appears to have been some organization going on. The prison is now being cleaned up (by the inmates), debris is being cleaned up. . . . "
The government's conciliatory approach to the prison crisis was signaled earlier Thursday, when Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III placed telephone calls to the families of the Atlanta hostages being held in Atlanta and the 28 captives in Oakdale, La. Meese pledged that federal authorities will "not do anything that will increase their risk," because "the safety of your loved ones is our paramount goal."
"At the same time," Meese said in the calls placed from the Washington office of J. Michael Quinlan, director of the Bureau of Prisons, "we are prepared and will take necessary precautions to protect lives if any serious threat should develop.
"Nothing is more important to me as attorney general than the safe release of your family members, and every effort will be taken to make sure that this happens as soon as possible," Meese told the two groups of hostage relatives, who were being served Thanksgiving meals in buildings near the prisons.
"Communications appear to have improved at both institutions," Quinlan said at an early afternoon briefing. "Leadership is emerging at both locations, allowing progress to be made. . . . The ability of the (government's) negotiators to count on the return appearance of certain people at certain times indicates to us there are improved communications.
"Discussions at Oakdale, in particular, have become more detailed. We better understand what the detainees want at Oakdale," he added.
In Louisiana, however, Justice Department spokesman Mark Sheehan said: "I'd like to discourage any anticipation of a quick result."
Officers Eat Dinner
As families of the Oakdale hostages ate Thanksgiving dinners in a nearby church, law officers ate their turkey off Styrofoam plates in the noonday sun at the prison, and officials dampened hopes for an early end to the crisis.
With the standoff there in its sixth day, the hundreds of police, National Guardsmen, Border Patrol officers, FBI agents and emergency crews appeared to be digging in for a long stay.
The prison parking lot has become an ever-growing bivouac of trailers, tents, buses and even half a dozen full-size mobile homes that serve as barracks and makeshift command posts. Telephone lines, electric generators, water tanks and outhouses have been installed, and a mess tent serves three meals a day and endless cups of coffee.
Behind the 15-foot razor-wire fence, inmates appeared calm, taking turns patrolling the perimeter of the grounds and occasionally hoisting signs with messages for the outside world.
Banners Bear Messages
"Mr. Reagan, If You Deny Us Freedom, We Star Kill," one banner read. Other signs hanging from the gutted prison buildings took a more imploring tone, such as: "Mr. Reagan, If You Deny Us Our Freedom, You Kill Us."
Although there have been no confirmed sightings of the hostages since Monday, both Sheehan and Quinlan said they were confident the hostages are safe.
The Cubans "have kept their commitment to keep them safe to the best of our knowledge," Quinlan said.