LIMA, Peru — Commandos stormed the diplomatic compound Tuesday where leftist rebels were holding 72 captives, ending Latin America's longest such standoff with a daring daylight attack that liberated 71 hostages and left one dead, along with two soldiers and all the rebels.
The raid by 140 commandos of the Peruvian marines, navy and army began at 3:20 p.m. at the residence of the Japanese ambassador. As explosions sent up clouds of smoke and masked soldiers charged into the stately, colonnaded mansion firing their weapons, commandos rushed disheveled hostages--some wearing sweatsuits and shorts, their faces bloodied--out of a roof-level exit, down a side stairway and out of the compound to waiting ambulances.
Among the freed hostages was the slightly injured Japanese ambassador, Morihisa Aoki, who entered an ambulance under his own power and was at his office working within two hours. The Peruvian foreign minister, Francisco Tudela, who was injured in his ankle, pumped a fist in the air victoriously as soldiers carried him away on a stretcher.
The raiders killed all 14 guerrillas of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement during the 40-minute gunfight, President Alberto Fujimori told reporters. "There was no other way out," Fujimori said, despite his repeated vow not to use force against the rebels unless they harmed hostages.
The commandos caught the rebels by surprise, striking as guerrilla leader Nestor Cerpa Cartolini, his three lieutenants and several other rebels were playing soccer in the spacious living room of the mansion, said freed hostage Jorge Gumucio, the Bolivian ambassador to Peru. The rebels routinely played soccer in the afternoon in an area they had cleared for that purpose.
Teams of attackers set off the first explosion beneath the floor of the living room and swarmed up, guns blazing, from tunnels previously constructed by the government. Cerpa, the combat-hardened guerrilla who had survived a decade of terrorist acts and clashes with security forces, apparently died on the makeshift soccer field, according to Gumucio.
"At least eight of them were playing soccer at that moment, and the explosion was inside the tunnel that had been built beneath the soccer area," Gumucio said in a television interview hours after the raid. "And then other officers came up from other tunnels onto the first floor who must have finished off that group" of rebels.
Gumucio was in corner of a bedroom with Tudela on the second floor, where the hostages were being guarded by two guerrillas. The rebels on the second floor fought a protracted gunfight with raiders who swooped in from the roof within two minutes of the explosion, Gumucio said.
Gumucio said the hostages--some of whom later said they were playing mah jong when the raiders struck--had been notified days earlier of a possible attack. He would not elaborate, but there was speculation earlier in the siege that security forces were passing coded messages to the hostages through letters delivered by the Red Cross. Again without giving details, Gumucio said the hostages were notified 10 minutes before the attack to be ready.
"We were informed that they might come to get us, to do nothing, to follow instructions and stay on the floor," Gumucio said. "We could hear the combat but we could not see. We were on the floor."
The attack that ended the 18-week siege came soon after the hostages had finished lunch and less than two hours after a visit to the mansion by Ambassador Anthony Vincent of Canada, one of the negotiators who had shuttled between the two sides for months.
"You pick the best time for maximum surprise," a foreign diplomat monitoring the crisis said. "The middle of the afternoon might not seem the best time, but actually it worked out to be a pretty good time."
Fujimori identified the dead hostage as Supreme Court Justice Carlos Giusti, who died of a heart attack after suffering a gunshot wound. His voice breaking with emotion during a speech to the nation delivered from the back of a pickup truck at the scene, Fujimori said the two dead soldiers were Lt. Raul Jimenez and Cmdr. Juan Valdez, commandos who were bodyguards for the president's son, Kenji.
About 26 hostages suffered wounds, all minor except in the case of one whose life was nevertheless in no danger, Fujimori said. The president's brother, who was among the hostages, also survived the ordeal.
"Gentlemen, in Peru we are not going to accept terrorism," Fujimori shouted. "In Peru, we are going to strengthen the principles of democracy. We have given an example to the international community that you cannot permit terrorist blackmail, you must not surrender."
Minutes after the shooting had stopped, Fujimori strode into the diplomatic compound-turned-battlefield wearing a black, bulletproof vest over a white dress shirt and surrounded by commandos with masks and painted faces.