SAN SALVADOR — Leftist guerrillas staged a daring pre-dawn assault on the wealthy Escalon neighborhood Tuesday and seized part of the luxury Sheraton Hotel for 13 hours, trapping about 25 guests, including four U.S. military advisers and seven other Americans.
The siege apparently ended with a negotiated rebel withdrawal and the release of the captives.
The Salvadoran government and the International Red Cross said 17 civilians, including three Americans, were freed just after a 6 p.m. curfew and taken in a fleet of Red Cross ambulances to the relief agency's headquarters here.
The others--at least four U.S. army advisers and four U.S. government consultants who were also armed--remained in the hotel overnight, a senior Salvadoran army official said. He said they feared harm by guerrilla snipers or mines if they left in the dark.
Reporters were forced off the street by the curfew and were unable to verify the outcome of the daylong siege of the hotel's six-story VIP annex.
Marie Aude Lude, a Red Cross spokeswoman, said the deal was mediated by Msgr. Gregorio Rosa Chavez, the auxiliary Roman Catholic bishop of San Salvador.
The right-wing government and the rebel leadership accepted a one-hour cease-fire allowing the 20 or so rebels to retreat from the hotel annex into the night.
The assault marked a surprising turn of events in a sweeping urban guerrilla offensive launched Nov. 11. The rebels apparently are trying to force the U.S.-backed government of President Alfredo Cristiani to negotiate an end to the decade-old civil war.
Until Tuesday, most of the fighting had taken place across town in the poor, crowded neighborhoods on the northeastern perimeter of the capital, and the offensive appeared to be drawing to a close.
According to civilian and military sources, 50 to 150 rebels began Tuesday's offensive at 4 a.m. in Escalon and neighboring San Benito, slipping down two gorges from the southern slope of the San Salvador volcano on the city's western edge.
Ground fighting and aerial rocketing and strafing raged over scores of blocks in both neighborhoods throughout the day. The fighting left the Sheraton Hotel's six-story VIP tower heavily pocked by gunfire and with most of its windows shattered. The hotel is no longer part of the American chain.
The hotel manager, Robert Nieuwveld, said at least two government soldiers died in fighting on the hotel grounds. Reporters saw at least 30 other soldiers wounded in the surrounding neighborhood.
Paul Iredale, a British journalist covering the fighting for Reuters news agency, was wounded in the lower back and treated at a hospital. He was listed in fair condition.
Nieuwveld said the rebels entered the lobby of the hotel's main seven-story building about 4:30 a.m.
At noon, the Salvadoran army, backed by tanks and helicopters, evacuated the secretary general of the Organization of American States, Joao Baena Soares, and 19 other guests from the main building of the hotel. About 50 other guests there left on their own.
But the rebels kept control of the VIP tower about 50 yards behind the main building and on the other side of the swimming pool.
Journalists who made their way through army fire into the rebel-held tower about noon said they saw eight Americans hiding behind barricades of furniture on the fourth floor.
They were armed with M-16 automatic rifles. A Salvadoran military officer said that four of the Americans were U.S. military advisers on temporary duty. Forty-seven advisers are are now stationed here.
Another source said the four were members of the U.S. Army Special Forces from Ft. Bragg, N.C., who had been scheduled to leave for home Tuesday.
The other four armed Americans were retired public employees here on government contract to evaluate U.S. military training programs in El Salvador.
The rebels held all floors above and below the Americans but never entered their floor.
Rebel leaders denied that they were holding anyone hostage but never explained the objective of the hotel siege.
"They say they're not holding them . . . but they don't let them leave," said the manager. "So what do you call that?"
The armed Americans trapped on the fourth floor allowed a Mexican television reporter to advance with his hands in the air.
"We are from the U.S. Embassy. We are trapped here," said an American who did not give his name. "We don't want to fight with them (the rebels)."
The bespectacled, 19-year-old rebel in charge of the operation told reporters: "All we want (with the Americans) is to talk to them and for them to turn over their weapons."
It was clear throughout the day that both the guerrillas and U.S. officials were looking to avoid a confrontation.
A clandestine rebel broadcast called on foreign governments to refrain from using force to rescue their citizens because "our struggle is not with them."