US troops to do humanitarian work in Peru where Shining Path rebels active
May 23, 2008 - (Associated Press)

By VICTORIA BEKIEMPIS, Associated Press Writer

LIMA, Peru (AP) -- Three hundred U.S. troops will launch a humanitarian mission in a mountainous Peruvian region that is home to drug traffickers and resurgent violence by Shining Path rebels, the U.S. Embassy said Friday.

The soldiers will be building schools and medical outposts and digging wells from June 1 to the end of August in the Ayacucho region of southeastern Peru, Embassy spokesman Dan Martinez told The Associated Press.

Peru's opposition Nationalist Party protested the mission, dubbed New Horizons, calling it "foreign interference."

But Martinez said the mission aims to show "the human face of the armed forces," and the troops also will conduct "medical readiness" exercises intended to prepare Peruvian military personnel for natural disasters.

The highland region where the soldiers will be operating is a hotbed of the drug trade, crisscrossed by paths that traffickers use to haul cocaine out of the Apurimac River Valley in backpacks and on mules. Peru is the world's second-largest cocaine producer after Colombia.

The U.S. State Department restricts its employees' travel in the area.

The region also has seen rising violence in recent months by Shining Path rebels, who experts say are financing a resurgence by selling protection to drug traffickers.

In November, a guerrilla column stormed a police station in November along a drug-trafficking route, killing a police commander and wounding three officers. The next month, rebels ambushed a police car, killing two officers and wounding another.

The latter attack occurred just outside the village of Luricocha, where U.S. soldiers will work. Martinez said the troops will bring some weapons, but they will be under the protection of Peruvian troops. He declined to comment on specific security risks.

The Shining Path had the government on the ropes in the 1980s and early 1990s with a campaign of massacres, political assassinations, bombings and sabotage, but faded after its leader, Abimael Guzman, was captured in 1992.

The U.S. troops are expected to be quartered at the Los Cabitos military base in the city of Ayacucho, where investigators are digging up the bodies of dozens of civilians killed by Peru's military in the 1980s and 1990s in an effort to eliminate rebel collaborators.
Associated Press writer Monte Hayes contributed to this report.