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At on a cool summer night on Dec. Sipping cocktails and nibbling sushi on the lawn behind the Japanese Ambassador's house were Lima's most important political and social figures, including the foreign and agricultural ministers, the President of the Supreme Court, six Supreme Court justices, five generals of the National Police and President Alberto K. Fujimori's mother, sister and brother. The American Ambassador, Dennis Jett, had left the party early, but seven American diplomats had stayed behind. The only usual guest missing was the most important one: President Fujimori.

Suddenly, an explosion shattered soft conversation, shaking the glasses and bottles on the tables. It sounded like a car bomb going off on the street outside, but the danger was much closer. Within 30 seconds, 14 masked men and women, some of them teen-agers, clambered through a hole they had blasted in the garden wall and slipped behind the trees.

Two took positions at the front entrance. The rebels began shooting in the air, and ordered the guests to hit the ground.

Hostages freed as troops storm Lima embassy

They warned their victims not to look at them, though it would have been impossible to identify them with the movement's trademark red, white and black bandanas over their faces. Barely concealed panic took hold of some guests, while adrenalin seemed to race through the rebels.

Another captive, Mr. Torrado, thought they would all be killed, most likely by the police who would storm in at any minute.

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He stared at the half-empty glass of whisky he had left on the grass in front of his nose and almost reached for it. He was sure it would be his last, and he might as well finish it.

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The rebels' bullets were quickly answered by those of the police. For 40 minutes, the guests lay there with bullets flying over their heads. It was then that the second in command, whom the rebels later called El Arabe, asked for the party's host, Ambassador Morihisa Aoki, who was sitting on the ground with the other guests.

Many thought the Ambassador would be killed on the spot. Instead he took a megaphone, and with El Arabe supplying the words, told the police to hold their fire. Aoki said. The guerrillas moved all the guests inside the house, ordering them back on the floor with their hands behind their heads. Men in suits and women in cocktail dresses and silk kimonos crowded onto every inch of floor space, under tables and the piano. As soon as the firing stopped, the guerrillas announced that they would release all the waiters, women and elderly guests. But when they opened the door to let them out, the police lobbed tear gas into the house.

The rebels, who had come prepared with gas masks, were hardly troubled by the gas.

Liberation of Japanese Embassy in Lima

The guests grabbed handkerchiefs or paper napkins for protection. President Fujimori's mother, along with his sister Rosa, went among the guests with a bowl of water to moisten the handkerchiefs, in an attempt to ease the effects of the tear gas. Aoki took the megaphone again and repeated his request for the police to hold their fire. He then turned to El Arabe. I, alone, am important enough for you to bargain with.

Michel Minnig, the newly arrived head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, approached the rebel leader to identify himself. Shortly afterward, he went outside with his hands up and shouted at the police to stop shooting.

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Sally Bowen identified herself as a journalist, and told a guerrilla standing near her that she wanted to stay. Her request was turned down, but before she filed out with more than women, she was taken to meet the commander of the operation, Nestor Cerpa Cartolini. She and another journalist asked Mr. Cerpa what the rebels were doing there. The book focuses on union workers whom Mr. Cerpa had led in the takeover of a bankrupt textile factory called Cromotex in That clash had ended, inauspiciously, with a military assault that killed six workers.

In the early hours of the siege, hostages feared that they would die not at the hands of their captors, but in a military assault by Government security forces.

Cerpa said he and his band of 13 rebels -- actually 4 men and 10 youngsters recruited from the jungles -- would start killing captives if President Fujimori did not appear for face-to-face talks. His goal, he said, was the release of more than Tupac Amaru members in Peruvian jails. The rebel leader threatened to begin the killings with Foreign Minister Francisco Tudela. But the deadline for his killing came and went with Mr. Fujimori sticking to his refusal to meet with Mr.

The rebel leader backed down. He announced that there would be no killing, at least not by the Tupac Amaru. Instead, the hostages say, Mr. Cerpa tried to win over his captives, engaging them in philosophical conversations about the free market economy and the poor whose lot, he felt, would never improve. Though his band of rebels could not hold hundreds of people against their will over the long run, he used the first few days to expound his ideas, seemingly in an attempt to send the first captives out as favorable emissaries.

He released scores of prisoners over the next two weeks, including in a ''good-will gesture'' shortly before Christmas.

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To a fearful general who had captured a comrade whose release Mr. Cerpa was now seeking, he said, ''Don't worry -- we're not killers. He asked pollsters among the captives about his group's standing, and whether Peruvians distinguished between the Tupac Amaru and the much more bloodthirsty Shining Path movement.

In a statement, he suggested that the Tupac Amaru could transform itself into a political party. The standoff between the rebel leader and Mr. Fujimori emerged as a contest of wills and images, with each one playing to twin audiences, at home and abroad. While Mr. Cerpa settled in for a waiting game with Mr.

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Fujimori -- who had promised that he would not use violence unless the rebels began killing hostages -- the President almost immediately began taking steps for a counterattack to rout out the guerrillas. Before Christmas a team of commandos began training, working out maneuvers on a mockup of the Japanese Ambassador's residence. At the same time, the President agreed to hold preliminary conversations -- he was loath to use the word ''negotiations'' -- with the rebels.

Minnig, the representative of the Red Cross. The talks evolved into a kind of carousel, which moved in circles but never advanced. Whenever the golden ring of an agreement appeared within reach, something happened -- a harsh statement from the Government, the sudden breakoff of talks, the audible excavation of rescue tunnels -- to dash the prospects of a negotiated settlement. Nobody expected this efficiency, this speed.

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