The eight-day hostage drama that has shaken Honduras ended today when the 12 leftist gunmen left on a Panamanian plane requested by the government. They are expected to go to Cuba.
The rebels' last 32 captives, including two government ministers, rode with them to the airport in a bus and lined up as a human shield to protect them as they boarded the plane.
Radio stations in Panama reported that the plane carrying the guerrillas had arrived in that country, probably as a stopping point en route to Havana, The Associated Press reported.
Initially, the guerrillas had held 107 hostages -- including many of this country's major business leaders, as well as the economic and treasury ministers and the head of the Central Bank -- but released dozens during the week after they stormed a special meeting of the Chamber of Commerce here Sept. 17. There was no loss of life in the episode.
President Roberto Suazo Cordova's 8-month-old civilian government acceded to none of the substantive demands -- such as release of prisoners -- made by the Cinchonero Popular Liberation Movement, according to the two Roman Catholic bishops who conducted most of the negotiations.
The talks were "pretty difficult, pretty hard, moving along just a bit at a time," said the papal nuncio, Archbishop Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, who headed the negotiating team. "They asked for many, many things and got nothing at all."
But there was some speculation, even among the freed hostages, that the guerrillas may have obtained what they wanted: publicity for their organization and, it is feared by many people here, the beginning of polarization in this relatively peaceful Central American country.
The effect of the hostage crisis on the delicate balance of power between elected President Suazo and his Argentine-trained military commander, Gen. Gustavo Alvarez, remains a matter of conjecture.
Today, happily waving Hondurans lined the long highway to the airport, running from offices and shacks as radioed news reports told them the motorcade was on its way.
When it was all over, the 32 top businessmen and government functionaries who were the last to be released stood in the local Army headquarters and sang the Honduran national anthem. Then they held emotional reunions with families that have kept a frightened vigil for more than a week.
The Cinchoneros take their name from a 19th century Honduran peasant movement but are believed to be closely tied to rebels in neighboring El Salvador. They originally demanded eight concessions that underscored both their internationalist sympathies and the extent to which Honduras is becoming what some foreign observers describe as a "sideshow" to Central America's bitter wars.
The guerrillas had asked that U.S. military advisers, who sometimes number as many as 96 here, be expelled. They asked that Honduras withdraw from the recently formed anticommunist Central American Democratic Community and that Honduras dismantle the staging areas on this side of the border used by Nicaraguan rebels making forays against the leftist Sandinista government to the south. The gunmen's central demand was the release of alleged political prisoners and "disappeared people," including many Salvadorans they believed to be in police custody here.
The most important of these was Salvadoran guerrilla commander Alejandro Montenegro, arrested in the capital of Tegucigalpa on Aug. 22. He was a founder of the most militarily successful of the Salvadoran guerrilla factions, the People's Revolutionary Army, and a key planner of the raid by guerrilla commandos that destroyed most of the Salvadoran Air Force on the ground in San Salvador at the beginning of the year.
But by the time negotiations began with the Cinchoneros for his release, the Hondurans reportedly had deported Montenegro to El Salvador.
Former hostage Ramon Milla Neda, 44, a business adviser among a group of 20 hostages released Thursday, said that after six days locked up with the guerrillas, he believed "70 percent of their business was public relations and that is what they got." He noted the accounts by ex-hostages in the press of decent treatment at the terrorists' hands and the sometimes almost admiring descriptions of their leader.
The chief of the gunmen called himself simply "Uno," meaning "one," and disdained the title of commander affected by many guerrilla leaders. He has been talked of by those who met him as a "natural leader" and "well-educated."
The nuncio noted that Uno's group denied participation in any but two previous terrorist incidents. The nuncio, who had negotiated the release of hostages from a domestic airliner hijacked April 28 by gunmen claiming to be with the same organization, said he is sure these are not the same people. That group had asked for money, among other demands, and this group never did.
The nuncio said Uno told him his group was responsible only for the takeover of a Sahsa Airlines 737 jet in March 1981 that led to the release of another Salvadoran commander and the brief seizure of a Honduran radio station several months ago.
Former hostage Milla Neda said, "It is dangerous to talk about this, this image of them as not killing, as looking for justice, etc., because it may be that none of it is true. It could have all been an act."
Moderate leftists in this country voiced concern that the guerrillas' seizure may provoke repression and strengthen the hand of conservative military officers. Honduran journalists who printed the leftists' communiques have found themselves privately accused by government officials of communist sympathies.
Speaking of both the guerrillas and the Army, one Honduran reporter said, "They're forcing us to take positions, and they wind up kicking us toward the extreme left."