The hostage crisis that has stunned this Central American country appeared on its way toward a peaceful resolution today as leftist guerrillas released 21 more hostages and a senior Honduran official said the gunmen have dropped several major demands.
Two Cabinet ministers and the head of the Honduran Central Bank remain captives along with about 55 prominent businessmen, according to government spokesmen. But a well-informed government source who asked not to be quoted by name said that the crisis could be over in the next "two or three days."
He said the guerrillas had set aside what he referred to as "filler" demands that all U.S. military advisers be expelled from of the country, that Honduras withdraw from the newly formed anticommunist Central American Democratic Community and that an antiterrorist law be repealed.
The guerrillas' key demand is the release of about 60 prisoners and people who allegedly disappeared after capture by Honduran security forces. The official said that the guerrillas have indicated they will accept proof that some of those on their list are already free or had been previously deported to El Salvador. The prisoners on the guerrillas' list are Hondurans, Salvadorans and other Latin Americans.
This leaves both the guerrillas and the government an opportunity to save face. The official said the government is offering the gunmen nothing more than safe conduct out of the country. But by declaring the prisoners had already been released, the government could maintain that it did not act under duress.
From eight to 10 guerrillas of the Cinchonero National Liberation Movement, which appears to be closely associated with leftist rebels in neighboring El Salvador, stormed the Chamber of Commerce building last Friday evening during a special economic meeting.
They took 105 people hostage. Twenty-three were released or escaped before today. One, a member of the Honduran Red Cross, was released this morning. Then 20 more were allowed out this evening for frenzied reunions with their families at the nearby headquarters of the Honduran 3rd Infantry Battalion.
Several U.S. Embassy officials, including military personnel, have visited San Pedro Sula during the crisis, and the embassy has aided the Hondurans in forming psychological profiles of the terrorists, according to official sources.
The building is now surrounded by Honduran soldiers, who regularly beat on garbage cans and nearby garage doors "to keep the subversives from sleeping," as one Honduran sergeant put it this morning.
The talks with the gunmen, meanwhile, are conducted by a special commission led by the papal nuncio.
Honduran President Roberto Suazo Cordova briefly visited San Pedro Sula yesterday to consult with local military officials, as about 5,000 people marched through the streets of this economic center to show their opposition to the kind of political violence the guerrillas represent.
Suazo Cordova, who did not speak publicly, was reported by some sources to be insisting on a peaceful solution to the crisis, which has jeopardized the lives of the economic leadership at a time when the nation's faltering finances are particularly vulnerable.