It was a drama created by just 15 men, all members of the Marxist Tupac Amaru movement that has long shadowed Peruvian politics . As the Japanese ambassador to Peru, Morihita Aoki, played host to a sparkling cocktail party to celebrate the birthday of the Japanese emperor, the guerrillas stormed the building and took the ambassador - and almost 500 of his guests - hostage.
The rebels' leader, who instantly relayed his demands to the Peruvian government, was Nestor Cerpa. Described by experts on the Tupac Amaru movement as utterly determined and inflexible, he made the simple, but outrageous, request: that all his followers being held in Peruvian jails - several hundred of them - be released.
His antagonist, however, was Peru's President Alberto Fujimori, a man equally renowned for nerves of steel. From the outset - in spite of calls for caution from the Japanese government - the President insisted that the release of the movement's followers was simply not on the agenda.
President Fujimori was not apparently weakened in his resolve by the fact that among the hostages was not only his own Foreign Minister, Francisco Tudela, but his brother.
As the weeks dragged from early winter to spring, hopes rose that some kind of negotiated compromise might eventually be worked out. President Fujimori negotiated an opportunity for the hostage-takers to escape to political asylum in Cuba should they release their captives unharmed.
Over the months, starting with the women, who were freed hours after the seige began, large numbers of hostages were let out until only 72 remained: but they were those - judges, armed forces heads, Japanese businessmen - whom the hostage-takers reckoned to be the best bargaining counters.
A critical turn in the drama came on 12 March, however, when all direct talks between the two sides broke down.
While what drove the Peruvian government to act last night was still not quite clear, some clues that an endgame was approaching were discernible over the past few days. Most notably, last weekend saw the resignation of two senior ministers who accepted blame for the lapses in security that allowed the hostages to be taken last December.
In their place came two generals with reputations as extreme hardliners. General Cesar Saucedo was appointed the new Interior Minister and General Fernando Dianderas took his position as the new national police chief.
It was being widely assumed last night that these two men had wasted no time in leaning on the President to take the decision to storm the Japanese ambassador's residence.
Key events in 4-month siege
Dec 17 1996- About 15 Tupac Amaru rebels seize the Japanese ambassador's residence during a cocktail party and take hundreds of hostages. Hours later, they release the women, including the mother and sister of President Alberto Fujimori.
Dec 18 - Rebels threaten to kill hostages, beginning with Foreign Minister Francisco Tudela, unless government releases jailed comrades; later release three ambassadors and Peruvian diplomat.
Dec 19 - International Red Cross becomes intermediary. Three hostages released. Japanese Foreign Minister Yukihiko Ikeda arrives in Lima.
Dec 20-22 -Rebels free 263 hostages.
Dec 24 - Uruguay's ambassador is released after his country frees two Tupac Amaru rebels. Peru protests.
Dec 28 - Negotiator, Education Minister Domingo Palermo, meets rebels who release 20 hostages.
Jan 1 1997- Seven hostages freed.
Jan 15 - Rebels agree to participate in talks on the condition everything is on the table.
Feb 1 - Fujimori agrees to talks with rebels at summit in Toronto with Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.
Feb 11 - Talks begin.
March 3 - Fujimori visits Cuba and secures Fidel Castro's offer of asylum for rebels.
March 12 - Talks break down over guerrilla leader Nestor Cerpa's demand that hundreds of rebels be released.
April 20 - Peru's Interior Minister and police chief resign, citing security lapses that allowed rebels to seize hostages.
April 22 - Peruvian forces storm residence.Reuse content