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Special Peruvian Commission Begins Talks With Gov't, Rebels

By Gabriel Escobar
The Washington Post
LIMA, Peru

For the first time since the Japanese ambassador's residence here was taken over 51 days ago, a special commission formally began Thursday the delicate task of facilitating negotiations between the Peruvian government and the rebel group still holding 72 people hostage inside.

The 2{-hour meeting was hailed by some as the beginning of the end of the crisis. But other observers cautioned that the two sides remained so far apart that a resolution still seems far off.

Bishop Juan Luis Cipriani, addressing reporters outside the residence, said he and his two colleagues on the commission "coordinated the initiation of preliminary conversations." This was interpreted as a hint that the potentially divisive groundwork for substantive talks still has to be dealt with.

For the hostages, the meeting Thursday represented at least the first real sign that a release could be pending. The commission's duties are still somewhat vague - and even remain a source of confusion - but all agree that the members will guarantee that any terms reached between the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement and the Peruvian government be carried out as part of the eventual release of the hostages.

Those held include senior Peruvian officials, Japanese businessmen, the ambassadors of Japan and Bolivia, and the younger brother of President Alberto Fujimori.

There is a consensus here that the crisis will be resolved peacefully through negotiations, with both sides yielding something. But face-to-face talks have been stalled for weeks because Tupac Amaru is insisting on the release of jailed members, something Fujimori has not only rejected but also insists cannot even be a topic of discussion in the talks.

Hope that last weekend's meeting in Toronto between Fujimori and Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto would push the negotiations forward quickly evaporated when the release of the prisoners again became a divisive issue. Fujimori, in an interview Saturday in Washington, said rebel leader Nestor Cerpa Cartolini had given up on the release of the prisoners - a claim that was immediately and angrily rejected by Cerpa.

Fujimori's comments, which caught many by surprise here, resulted in an even firmer public stance by Cerpa, who again insisted on the prisoners' release. The president's claim also forced into the open the secret talks conducted between Cerpa and Cipriani, who is a confidant of Fujimori and the only person who could have told the president that the rebel leader was ready to abandon his key demand.

This was all but confirmed earlier in the week when Cerpa asked Cipriani to clear up unspecified "false affirmations." The bishop, without providing details, acknowledged Wednesday that he has had frequent conversations with Cerpa and that part of his pastoral mission was to provide alternatives to end the crisis.

How all of this affects the commission's work is unclear. Aside from Cipriani, who has emerged as the spokesman, the other members include Canada's ambassador to Peru and former hostage, Anthony Vincent, and the chief delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Lima, Michel Minnig. When the talks take place, the Japanese government will be represented by its ambassador to Mexico, Terusuke Terada, who will be there as an observer under an accord reached in Toronto.

The commission's members are also "observers" and, as such, will not make any proposals. The meeting Thursday was to allow the government and Tupac Amaru to, in effect, talk about how to talk and what to talk about.

Even with the jailed Tupac Amaru prisoners a significant barrier, there is some hope that other subjects can be addressed to at least give the impression that negotiations are under way.

"Definitive conversations will take place when the terms of discussion are identified as A, B, C and D," said Rep. Daniel Espichan, a member of Fujimori's party and the president of the congressional human rights commission. "At this point, we just don't know what A, B, C and D are."

"The position of the president and of the Peruvian people is that there be no liberation," said Espichan, a former prosecutor who earned his reputation for firmly applying Peru's anti-terrorism legislation.