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Clinton Meets, Praises Peru's Fujimori On Hostage Standoff

By Anthony Faiola
The Washington Post

During a hastily arranged meeting at the White House Monday, President Clinton openly praised Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori's handling of the 49-day standoff with leftist guerrillas who hold hostages at the Japanese ambassador's home in Lima.

"The president told President Fujimori that he was skillfully walking a very fine line between resolving this crisis peacefully without giving in to terror," White House spokesman David Johnson said after the visit, which also included Vice President Gore and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

"(Clinton) told (Fujimori) that it is a hard line to walk but it's the right one," Johnson said.

Fujimori landed in Washington Saturday after an emergency weekend summit with Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in Toronto to discuss the hostage crisis. Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement guerrillas stormed the Japanese Embassy's residence during a reception on Dec. 17, taking more than 400 persons captive. They continue to hold 72 hostages, nearly all of them Peruvians.

Fujimori is in Washington to attend an international meeting on small business lending and did not have an appointment with Clinton. However, White House officials said Clinton offered an invitation after a briefing by Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America Jeffrey Davidow, who met Fujimori at the airport Saturday to discuss the summit in Toronto.

In offering the invitation, Clinton waved off cautionary signals from within his administration. Clinton's foreign policy advisers had earlier advised that meetings between heads of state are usually not a good idea unless planned in advance. And the State Department counter-terrorism experts have repeatedly warned Clinton against doing anything that would further raise the public profile of the crisis.

In part because of this advice, an administration official said, only newspaper and magazine photographers were allowed to record the the start of the 20-minute meeting. The White House wanted to ensure that the session was not shown around the world via CNN.

Clinton's decision to break with his advisers' advice - and to offer his first open praise of Fujimori's handling of the crisis - stemmed from progress in Toronto, where Fujimori and Hashimoto agreed to push for direct talks with the rebels but ruled out granting the guerrillas' demand for the liberation of about 400 jailed Tupac Amaru members.

In an interview with The Washington Post on Saturday, Fujimori provided details into private, indirect talks with the rebels, in which he said they agreed that freeing jailed Tupac Amaru rebels would not be on the table when the time came for serious negotiations.

Sunday, the leader of Marxist group inside the embassy - often called by its Spanish initials, MRTA - issued a statement denying that the hostage-takers had retreated from that key demand, and reiterated that jailed guerrilla members be released before they will free their captives, according to a Reuters report from Lima.

During a press conference following his meeting with Clinton, Fujimori said he had heard the rebels' denials. But he reaffirmed his earlier statements, saying the MRTA "has two positions, one in public, the other in private."

Both White House and Peruvian officials said Monday that Fujimori had not requested a meeting with Clinton prior to his arrival here. Peruvian officials said they did not want to "inconvenience" the White House "with requests for meetings every time the (Peruvian) president was in town."

But privately, Peruvian officials said they were grateful that Clinton extended the invitation, which came Sunday morning, saying that back-to-back meetings with leaders of Japan and the United States - two of the most important countries to Peru's economy - would bolster Fujimori's public image.

The rebels have also demanded improved prison conditions, an overhaul of Peru's secret court system for people accused of terrorism and an end to Fujimori's free-market economic reforms.

But during the press conference following his meeting with Clinton, a fresh-looking and confident Fujimori reiterated his position not to "give into blackmail" by offering concessions to the terrorists, but also said he would not use force unless the hostages are harmed.

Speaking briefly of his meeting at the White House, Fujimori said Clinton "expressed his continued support to our strategy to deal with the terrorists." Fujimori he discussed other issues with Clinton, including the status of the fight against cocaine production in Peru, as well the border dispute with neighboring Ecuador.