A general amnesty for political prisoners in May 1955 freed rebel leader Fidel Castro (1926-) and his followers from prison in Cuba; they promptly left for Mexico to reorganize their plans to overthow the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar (1901-73), whose regime was marked by blatant corruption, police oppression, and embezzlement. In 1956, Castro and 81 followers returned to eastern Cuba in a yacht loaded with arms and ammunition; many of these "invaders" were slain or captured by Batista's forces (Castro was erroneously presumed dead), but the rest found refuge in the rugged Sierra Maestra mountain range in Oriente province. For the next two years Castro's rebels carried out a successful guerrilla campaign from their mountain stronghold, from which neither the army nor the police could dislodge them. Castro's ranks grew to several hundred as sympathizers joined the guerrilla bands, which intermittently raided military installations and destroyed property. In 1957, the rebels kidnapped 10 American civilians and 28 sailors, but released them without harm when the US government and press angrily protested. Opposition to Batista's tyranny increased throughout Cuba, and admiration for the bearded revolutionaries who defied him grew apace. After calling for "total war" against Batista's regime, Castro took the offensive and moved out of the mountains in the fall of 1958. The rebels captured Santa Clara, the capital of Las Villas province, on December 31, 1958. Two day s before, Major Ernesto "Che" Guevara (1928-67), Castro's comrade-in-arms, had gained a coup by capturing an armored train loaded with weapons at Santa Clara. Realizing that all support for his government had eroded, Batista fled with his family to the Dominican Republic on January 1, 1959, taking the loot he had accumulated and leaving the Cuban government in the hands of a three-man military junta. Two days later Castro led the first of his motley columns into Havana, Cuba's capital, where they were hailed enthusiastically by the people. The army made no attempt to stop the rebel forces; indeed, most of the military was on their side and welcomed them. A provisional government was quickly formed with Castro as premier; gradually Cuba was transformed into a communist state supported by the Soviet Union.