Negotiators tricked Muslim rebels and made promises they never meant to keep in order to win the release of 46 hostages after a five-day ordeal at gunpoint, the spokesman for the Trinidad and Tobago government said Thursday.
"Why not promise them the moon and the stars when you have hostages under gunpoint?" asked spokesman Gregory Shaw, describing how the hostage crisis that began with bloody violence last Friday night was peacefully ended Wednesday. "It (deception) was the government's strategy."
Shaw conceded that the rebels of the group Jamaat al Muslimeen were correct when they protested as they surrendered that they had a deal with the government to grant a shopping list of major concessions, including an amnesty from arrest and prosecution signed by the small twin-island nation's President Noor Hassanali.
The agreement also called for the resignation of wounded and ailing Prime Minister Arthur N.R. Robinson, himself a hostage until his release on humanitarian grounds Tuesday, and formation of an interim government in which Muslimeen leader Yasin abu Bakr would participate.
But the government never meant to follow through on its promises. "Documents were signed, agreements were signed under duress by all of those who were present," Shaw said. The element of duress made them legally invalid, he added.
"Tricked, double-crossed, whatever you want to call it. . . . I think it is foolish to quibble about ethics when you are dealing with people doing this kind of thing," the government spokesman said.
The 112 hostage takers, meanwhile, remained under heavy guard at the army's Teteron Barracks in Chaguaramas, about 10 miles west of Port of Spain. Shaw said charges will be laid after an investigation, "possibly including treason, murder and kidnaping." He said the penalty for treason and murder can be death by hanging. Trinidad and Tobago has not carried out an execution since 1975, and the recommendation of an official commission that has been considering whether the penalty should be abolished is due to be made soon, according to other government officials.
Ironically, Shaw said that one of the radical Muslims, Andy Thomas, had been on death row until just a few weeks ago when he received a presidential pardon from Robinson's government.
Several previously unknown details of the hostage taking, which began when a car bomb demolished the block-square central police station, also emerged Thursday. As 42 of the radicals burst into Red House, the Parliament building where Robinson and other government officials were working, the prime minister cried out, "Who are you? Who is your commander? What do you want?" according to Shaw.
The leader of the Red House hostage takers, identified as Bilal Abdullah, replied that he wanted the prime minister to go on television to announce the resignation of his government.
"I can't do that. You'll have to kill me," Shaw said, quoting from an account by Youth Minister Jennifer Johnson, a fellow hostage. At this point, Robinson, Minister of National Security Selwyn Richardson and Member of Parliament Leo Des Vignes were shot in the legs, and Robinson was beaten, he said. Des Vignes was soon released by the hostage takers and hospitalized, but he died Wednesday of a heart attack brought on by the ordeal, Shaw said.
During the early stages of the crisis, it became clear that the radical rebels' demands put forward by Abu Bakr, who led the group of 70 in the Trinidad and Tobago TV complex, were escalating by the hour. "They asked for things like transportation to take the hostages and hostage takers to their commune to pray," he said.
In response to such demands, Shaw said, the government began a deliberate strategy of promising credible things, then holding back, then making concessions again. "The government tried to whittle away at the nerve of the hostage takers," he said. "By Wednesday, their nerve completely broke down and they surrendered unconditionally."
Meanwhile, the government said emergency supplies of food and medicines have begun to arrive from foreign donors and "arrangements are well advanced with the entire diplomatic corps, including the United States, for more relief."
Public Works Minister Carson Charles said the widespread looting that erupted on the night the hostages were taken has caused a severe food shortage, but essential services such as water and electricity have been unaffected. He said the government still is unsure about the extent of the damage done by the looters, who burned out many downtown buildings and demolished shops all over the capital city.
Because army units are still searching for possible Muslimeen booby traps, assessment teams cannot get into the worst areas to tabulate the damage, he explained.
About 3,000 people in a 12-block area around the television complex, including those in the American Embassy, were evacuated Thursday while the bomb search continued. A military officer said the army was trying to dismantle one vehicle bomb outside the television buildings, planted in a Muslimeen panel truck.