September 23, 1999
Freed militants avoid welcome-home rally in Puerto Rico

                  LARES, Puerto Rico (AP) -- As Congress debates President Clinton's
                  release of imprisoned Puerto Rican militants, independence supporters
                  rallied in the mountains Thursday hoping to welcome home their heroes.

                  But they were disappointed: the nine prisoners who accepted the clemency
                  arrangement and now live in Puerto Rico stayed away from the rally in
                  Lares, about 100 miles from San Juan, apparently fearing law enforcement
                  agencies hostile to their release could claim they were breaking parole and
                  rearrest them.

                  The parole conditions, much-criticized here by nationalists who preferred a
                  full pardon, prohibits them from associating with other convicted felons --
                  including each other.

                  Lawyers on Wednesday "told us we would be taking a risk if there's a
                  picture of us embracing someone or being greeted by someone with a
                  criminal record," said Luis Rosa, one of the freed militants. "So we're trying
                  to be careful."

                  The release of the independence supporters has sparked a storm of
                  controversy in the United States, and Congress has criticized Clinton for
                  granting the 14 inmates clemency two weeks ago.

                  Senior FBI official Neil Gallagher told a congressional hearing Wednesday
                  that he still considered the nationalists "terrorists (who) represent a threat to
                  the United States."

                  Clinton has said the offer was motivated not by politics, as critics have
                  charged, but out of concern for the "extremely lengthy sentences" the
                  separatists were serving. Most of those who had their sentences commuted
                  were serving between 35 and 90 years for seditious conspiracy and
                  possession of weapons and explosives.

                  Elizam Escobar said that until Wednesday night he had intended to go to
                  Lares, but he decided against it for fear of breaking parole.

                  "The decision to not participate at Lares .. was difficult," he said.

                  "I knew it was going to be hard for them to come," said a disappointed
                  Alsira Morales, who traveled to Lares from the San Juan area. "We want to
                  protect them."

                  The several thousand who gathered in Lares made do with listening to
                  supporters read messages from the freed prisoners, who served about 20
                  years in U.S. jails for charges related to a series of bombings from 1973 to
                  1984 that left six dead and dozens maimed.

                  Streets of the town were crowded with vendors selling T-shirts and posters
                  bearing the island's lone-star flag and pictures of the released prisoners.
                  Bands blared Puerto Rican salsa and old pro-independence anthems.

                  Thursday's celebration marked the anniversary of an 1868 armed revolt
                  against Spanish colonizers.

                  The 4 million islanders are U.S. citizens who serve in the military and receive
                  federal funds, but don't pay federal taxes or vote for president or Congress.
                  Still, support for independence is meager: less than 3 percent chose it in a
                  December plebiscite on Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States.

                  Gov. Pedro Rossello, who favors making the island a U.S. state, on
                  Wednesday challenged nationalists to a referendum that would simply ask
                  whether Puerto RIcans favor or oppose independence, leaving out complex
                  status options.

                  "I assure you that if the people of Puerto Rico wanted independence, they
                  would be given it tomorrow," Rossello said.

                    Copyright 1999 The Associated Press.