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Paroled American Lori Berenson leaves Peru for US visit; first time home since 1995 arrest
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) ' Paroled American Lori Berenson, who stirred international controversy as she was convicted of aiding Peruvian guerrillas, was heading to the United States for her first visit back since being arrested in Peru in 1995.
The 42-year-old boarded a Continental Airlines flight with her son at Lima's main airport under intense media scrutiny, as many in Peru wonder whether she will return by the court-ordered deadline of Jan. 11.
Wearing a black turtleneck, black jeans and designer eyeglasses, Berenson told an Associated Press reporter that she intended to return to Peru. Berenson was accompanied by a U.S. Embassy employee.
"I just hope we don't get caught in a snowstorm," she said, joking that would delay her return.
The AP reporter watched Berenson carry her 2-year-old son Salvador Apari to a seat in the back of the plane's economy section. It was scheduled to land at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey.
Berenson's departure capped three days of confusion after Peruvian authorities had prevented her from boarding a flight to New York on Friday despite a court approval allowing her to leave.
The authorities said Berenson, who had served 15 years on an accomplice to terrorism conviction before her parole last year, lacked an additional document.
Peruvian migration officials finally gave Berenson another document Monday clearing her to leave the country with her son to spend the holidays with her family in New York City.
Her father, Mark Berenson, said Monday that he was anxious to see her return.
"I'm just glad that they finally resolved the thing," he told the AP by phone
Lori Berenson admitted helping the Tupac Amaru rebel group rent a safe house where authorities seized a cache of weapons after a shootout with the rebels. She insists she didn't know guns were stored there and says she never joined the group.
In 1996, a military court convicted Berenson of treason and sentenced her to life in prison. After U.S. pressure, she was retried by a civilian court.
It's not clear whether Berenson's delayed exit amounted to government harassment or whether she simply got caught between competing bureaucracies.
Political analyst Aldo Panfichi, a Catholic University professor, said he believed she was not the victim of a conspiracy. "It is highly probable that this is a question of excess bureaucracy by mid-level functionaries or miscoordination and lack of clarity between state agencies," he said.
The court ruled that Berenson was not a flight risk. Her father told the AP that his daughter has every intention of returning to Peru.
By law, she must remain in Peru until her full sentence lapses unless President Ollanta Humala decides to commute it.
State anti-terrorism attorney Julio Galindo said he filed an appeal on Friday seeking to nullify the court ruling that approved Berenson's New York trip. He opposed Lori Berenson's parole from the start, and succeeded last year in having her returned to prison on a technicality for 2 1/2 months until a court ordered her freed in November.
Peru remains deeply scarred from its 1980-2000 conflict, which claimed some 70,000 lives.
Its gaping inequalities drew the young Berenson to Peru from El Salvador, where she had worked for the country's top rebel commander during negotiations that led to a 1992 peace accord.
Tupac Amaru was a lesser player in Peru's conflict and Berenson sought it out, she told the AP in an interview last year, because it was similar to other revolutionary movements in Latin America.
The group never set off car bombs or engaged in the merciless slaughter of thousands as Shining Path rebels did, but it did engage in kidnappings and selective killings. In the 1980s, it was known for hijacking grocery trucks and distributing food to the poor.
The group most famously raided the Japanese embassy in Peru in 1996 and held 72 hostages for more than four months. A government raid killed all the rebel hostage takers.
Berenson was arrested leaving Peru's Congress and accused of helping plan its armed takeover, which never happened.
She was initially unrepentant, but harsh prison life softened her. She was praised as a model prisoner in the report that supported her parole.
Some Peruvians still consider her a terrorist. She had been insulted in the street, and news media have repeatedly mobbed her.
Associated Press writer Martin Villena contributed to this report.