SAN SALVADOR — Tense and tired, with weapons in hand, 12 U.S. Army Green Berets raced from a luxury hotel tower Wednesday, 28 hours after leftist guerrillas trapped them inside.
They said the rebels who had occupied the Sheraton Hotel escaped Tuesday evening while church and relief workers evacuated 17 civilians from other floors of the hotel's VIP tower.
"They slipped out the back," one soldier said. "They slipped down the stairwell, went out back and jumped over the wall."
But the Americans said they remained in the tower overnight because they believed guerrilla sharpshooters were posted on the roof. They said the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) rebels had told them the stairwells were mined.
Their departure Wednesday morning followed an unusual standoff in which the rebels were as trapped as the armed U.S. soldiers and other hotel guests. During much of the 13-hour rebel occupation, the hotel was surrounded by government troops who kept up a barrage of fire.
A Roman Catholic bishop mediated the one-hour cease-fire between the guerrillas and the government that allowed Red Cross ambulances to remove the 17 trapped civilians. But U.S. officials took part in the talks through an open telephone line to the sixth floor of the besieged hotel tower.
The cease-fire also allowed the rebels to leave without the appearance of a deal and provided a bloodless ending to a conflict that all sides had worked hard to contain.
In Washington, Bush Administration officials insisted Wednesday that the U.S. role in helping free the Americans did not breach a longstanding U.S. policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists. They would not confirm whether there had been a deal allowing the rebels to go free along with the Americans and other foreigners.
The siege of the hotel in the wealthy Escalon neighborhood was part of a sweeping urban guerrilla offensive that began Nov. 11 in San Salvador and at least two provincial capitals. The rebels said their assault on Escalon was retribution for the Salvadoran army's aerial assaults on embattled poor neighborhoods, but they never explained their objective in trying to take the hotel.
The brief truce was the first negotiated pause in the rebel offensive, which has left thousands of dead and wounded. Roman Catholic Church officials have been pushing for a permanent cease-fire and negotiations to end the decade-old war. In one way, the hotel siege set back those efforts.
Joao Baena Soares, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, had come to El Salvador to reinforce the church's mediation efforts but hurriedly left the country Tuesday, without notifying church officials, after army troops evacuated him from the hotel's main tower.
In Washington on Wednesday, Soares told the permanent council of the OAS that he is ready to go back in order to negotiate a cease-fire in the Salvadoran civil war. For the first time since launching the offensive, the FMLN offered Wednesday night to negotiate a cease-fire. There was no immediate government reply.
The siege, a propaganda success for the rebels, was one of the more bizarre chapters in a decade-old war between a sophisticated guerrilla force and a U.S.-backed army that has held them at bay. The Americans agreed not to exchange gunfire with the guerrillas, who in turn passed notes from American civilians on the sixth floor to the Green Berets positioned behind barricades of furniture on the fourth floor.
The army, unused to fighting in neighborhoods with tennis clubs and BMWs, fired artillery shells at the hotel.
The U.S. soldiers, nervous long after the guerrillas had left, accused journalists who entered the hotel Wednesday of harboring rebels in their midst. Before leaving the hotel, they forced reporters inside to lie face down on the floor and checked their bags.
The rebels, who failed to take the main hotel building, told one guest their disappointment was that they never got to swim in the oversized pool between the two towers.
According to interviews with soldiers, civilian captives, rescue workers and officials, the ordeal unfolded this way:
The soldiers, U.S. Special Forces on temporary duty, were asleep early Tuesday morning on the fourth floor of the hotel annex when pistol shots erupted outside, followed by machine-gun fire.
"We got up and saw the guerrillas crossing the parking lot. We got our weapons and went to the end of the hall," said one soldier. Like all the Americans, he declined to give his name.
The soldiers built barricades of tables, mattresses and chairs across the blue-carpeted hallway. Soon, two guerrillas appeared in a stairwell midway down the hall.
"We told them to stop," a sergeant said. "They said they were FMLN. We said we were Americans and we didn't want to fight. They said they didn't either. They told us they were going to bring people through. They said, 'Don't shoot and we won't shoot.' "