70 days of Inca Kola and sushi in Lima

Talks go on but commandos watch and wait as the siege at the Japanese ambassador's mansion in Peru enters its 11th week. Phil Davison reports
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The Independent Online
Until the week before Christmas, Francisco Tudela, young, handsome and charming, was running his country's foreign affairs and shaping up as a future president. Today he is unshaven, cleaning toilets and sleeping on a mattress on a cold floor.

Mr Tudela, Peru's 41-year-old foreign minister, is one of 72 hostages held in the Japanese ambassador's mansion in Lima by Marxist guerrillas of the Tupac Amaru Liberation Movement (MRTA). Hopes for a resolution of the crisis, about to enter its 11th week, rose on Thursday when the guerrillas' leader, Nestor Cerpa, left the compound for the first time to meet government negotiators. More talks are due tomorrow, but the hostage drama can already claim a place in The Guinness Book of Records as the longest in Latin America, surpassing the 61-day occupation of the Dominican Republic embassy in Bogota by M-19 guerrillas in 1980.

When 600 guests arrived on the evening of 17 December, they were looking forward to the best diplomatic bash of the year, a champagne garden party celebrating both Emperor Akihito's birthday and Christmas. Everybody that was anybody was there, from government ministers and congressmen to senior police generals and President Alberto Fujimori's mother, sisters and younger brother Pedro. The president himself was due to pop by, but was running late.

The 14 or so MRTA guerrillas who ruined the party quickly released the women and have since freed all but 72 men, those they consider the most valuable to obtain the release of 400 jailed comrades.

For almost 10 weeks the VIP hostages, including two cabinet ministers, congressmen, police chiefs, the Japanese and Bolivian ambassadors, Japanese corporate executives and Pedro Fujimori, a businessman, have been living with no electricity, no telephones, no running water and no flushing toilets. Mr Tudela was said to be the first to organise toilet-cleaning shifts.

Water was cut off altogether for the first few days, but the Red Cross now pumps in water daily from a tanker to the building's storage tank. As with their captors, the VIPs' only "baths" are splashes from buckets of cold water. Having discarded their dinner suits in the early days, they receive fresh clothes and towels once a week.

The hostages are being held about 20 to a room in three or four salons or bedrooms on the first floor of the residence, an architect's exact copy of the Tara mansion in the film Gone With The Wind. The beds once used by the Japanese ambassador, Morihisa Aoki, and his family have been removed and pressed against outside doors as barricades. After sleeping on parquet floors for the first few days, the prisoners now have mattresses provided by the International Red Cross.

They get up at sunrise, unless they have been kept awake by military marches blaring from loudspeakers set up by soldiers across the street to jangle the guerrillas' nerves. Breakfast - coffee, bread, jam and cheese - is brought in by Red Cross workers who wheel it on trolleys from vans which stop at police cordons 100 yards away.

Lunch and dinner are brought in the same way, including regular sushi to make the Japanese captives feel "at home". Although there was a huge stash of liquor for the Christmas party, the guerrillas have kept it locked up. Cigarettes are brought in by the Red Cross. The guerrillas do not allow newspapers, but let the hostages listen to portable radios, with batteries supplied by the Red Cross envoys.

Inca Kola, a sparkling yellowish refreshment which vies with Coca-Cola for the lion's share of the local market, receives daily free publicity, filmed by television crews as it is carried in at the request of Mr Cerpa. Tasting remarkably like Irn-Bru, Inca Kola is produced by Jose R Lindley and Sons, a firm set up by English immigrants. Peruvians joke that the makers must be paying the guerrillas' leader for the free publicity for Inca Kola, also billed as "Our National Drink" or "The Drink That Unites Us".

The hostages spend their time reading books from the ambassador's library, teaching each other languages and playing cards, chess or dominoes. Two play guitars sent in by relatives. The captives' rooms are rarely locked, although they are always guarded by at least two guerrillas. They are allowed to write letters on Sundays and Thursdays, using standard International Red Cross forms, but these are screened by their captors, the Red Cross and police, with any information which might be sensitive blacked out. The same goes for mail from relatives, brought in on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

After 10 weeks, concerns are growing over the hostages' health. Red Cross doctors last week began bringing in heart-monitoring machines, using temporary electric cables. The condition of at least two hostages, Moises Pantoja, a former Supreme Court President, and Gilberto Siura, a Congressman suffering from cancer, is said to be "delicate". Mr Pantoja, who has arthritis, wrote to his family: "I can hardly walk. When I do, I lose my balance. My feet, hands and fingers have gone stiff."

The health issue could be crucial, because Mr Fujimori has said his pledge not to storm the building is valid only if no hostage dies. A hand-picked commando team from the Peruvian armed forces is said to be holed up in houses behind the Japanese compound, awaiting any attack order. But equally important may be the captives' mental health. A hostage released last month is said to be suffering from depression, and some of those freed said hostages and guerrillas were showing signs of the "Stockholm Syndrome", identifying with each other as friends in the face of the same outside threat.

As the stalemate has gone on, the physical reaction of the hostages has varied. Some have taken to jogging along the long first floor balustrade to relieve tension and keep in shape, while others have lost more than a stone in weight. The guerrillas, however, may have ways of passing the time not available to their exclusively male captives - among their number are two teenage girls, including a 17-year-old known as Saida, who have been seen at windows, waving and blowing kisses to newsmen.

Released hostages say the girls have begun removing their red and white bandannas and appear to have boyfriends among their fellow guerrillas. "Sometimes they'd come back on their guard duty looking awfully flushed," said one.