- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

LIMA, PERU (AP) - Peru’s government on Monday defended its offensive against the remnants of a once-powerful insurgency as armed forces searched for a soldier reported missing following rebel ambushes that killed more than a dozen people last week.

The body of one missing soldier was recovered Sunday, raising the death toll to 14 in Thursday’s rebel ambushes on two army patrols in the Apurimac-Ene river valley, Defense Minister Antero Flores-Araoz said.

Peru’s joint command said another soldier is still missing. Lima’s military hospital told The Associated Press that seven soldiers and one civilian were injured in the attacks.

The guerrillas apparently first attacked one of the patrols with explosives, killing one soldier and wounding three, then tracked and ambushed the other group, Flores-Araoz said.

The attacks in Sanabamba, a region of Ayacucho province 200 miles (320 kilometers) southeast of the capital, Lima, are the deadliest since October, when 13 soldiers and two civilians were killed in an ambush on a column of military trucks in the adjoining province of Huancavelica.

The rebels have now killed 32 soldiers, mostly in ambushes, and wounded 48 since Peru’s military mounted an offensive in August, according to Peru’s joint command. The offensive was launched to root rebels out of Vizcatan, a jungle-draped highland region in the valley considered to be the last stronghold of remnants of the Shining Path rebels.

Former Interior Minister Fernando Rospigliosi told Lima-based RPP radio on Monday that the offensive has been a “disaster.” He said the lack of results in terms of rebel kills and captures shows that the government’s strategy of taking and holding territory against the well-armed guerrillas is not working. He suggested instead that the government launch intelligence-supported special forces operations.

Ex-army chief Edwin Donayre agreed, calling the situation “unacceptable.”

“There are principles applicable to conventional warfare that do not suffice for non-conventional war,” he told RPP. “We have zero results so we need to reconfigure our strategy.”

Flores-Araoz said the government has no tally of rebel kills because the drug-funded guerrillas collect their dead, though the military has found traces of blood after confrontations.

He defended the offensive, saying “territory once dominated by the drug trade has been recovered.” But he added that the joint command will decide if a new strategy needs to be applied.

Interior Minister Mercedes Cabanillas told reporters Monday that the soldiers ignored security protocol by patrolling during the day, but said the error should not discredit the military’s overall strategy, which she called sound.

The Maoist Shining Path once boasted 10,000 fighters and rocked Peru’s capital with nearly daily car bombings before fading after the capture of its fanatical founder, Abimael Guzman, in 1992. Nearly 70,000 Peruvians died between 1980 and 2000 in the rebels’ first battle with Peru’s government, mainly highland Indians caught between the guerrillas and state security forces.

Officials say the Shining Path’s remnants, numbering about 500, have largely abandoned ideology for the drug trade in two remote coca-producing valleys. They produce and traffic their own cocaine, and drugs continue to move out of the Apurimac-Ene river valley despite the government’s offensive, Peru’s anti-drug police say.

(This version CORRECTS the total number of soldiers killed to 32.)

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