December 28, 2000

Argentine guerrillas reject early jail release

                  BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (Reuters) -- The Argentine government said on
                  Thursday it was poised to cut the politically sensitive jail terms of survivors
                  of the country's last guerrilla band, but the militants vowed to carry on a hunger
                  strike unless they were immediately set free.

                  President Fernando de la Rua's centrist government has been slow to respond to
                  the hunger strike by 12 guerrillas of the leftist All for the Fatherland movement
                  (MTP) -- imprisoned for a 1989 army base attack that killed 39 people and, they
                  claim, headed off a coup plot -- because of widespread public anger.

                  The band's attack on the La Tablada base came six years into Argentina's
                  post-dictatorship democracy, and politicians and historians alike have dismissed
                  the coup allegations.

                  But amid increasing fears that members of the band -- who entered the 115th
                  day of their second hunger strike this year on Thursday -- might soon die,
                  Interior Minister Federico Storani said the government was preparing a decree to
                  commute the guerrillas' life sentences by the end of the week.

                  "The attack was so serious ... that a pardon is not appropriate," Storani told local
                  radio. "The commuting of their sentences will be done on a case by case basis.
                  We have not yet decided what the reductions will be."

                  Local media speculated the guerrillas could be free within as little as a

                  The move is aimed at preempting a possible international human rights outcry.
                  The has long pushed for the guerrillas to be allowed to appeal their terms, which
                  is barred under current law.

                  The move marks a reversal by the government, which just a week ago
                  threatened to force-feed the prisoners if they appeared to be in danger of dying.

                  A spokesman for the hunger strikers, who had previously been pushing only for
                  a chance to appeal their convictions, rejected the government's sentence
                  reduction compromise, saying they would continue their hunger strike until set

                  "The prisoners' position has not changed. The hunger strike ends when they
                  walk free," said spokesman Adrian Witemberg.

                     Copyright 2000 Reuters.