LIMA, Sept 2 (Reuters) - Two Peruvian soldiers were killed on Wednesday when Shining Path rebels in South America’s largest coca-growing region shot down an army helicopter in their second strike this week, the defense minister said.
Rebels have been retaliating since the army launched a raid a week ago to catch a leader of the Shining Path who helps direct cocaine trafficking in the Ene and Apurimac River Valleys (VRAE) of Peru’s central Andean jungle.
Four guerrillas and two soldiers died in that attack and the army failed to capture Jorge Quispe, who the government calls a top “narco-terrorist.”
The helicopter struck on Wednesday was trying to rescue three soldiers wounded in a clash that broke out a day earlier, Defense Minister Rafael Rey said.
One soldier on the helicopter was injured, bringing the number of wounded and stranded soldiers near the flash point to four.
“The helicopter was hit at long range as it was preparing to land for the rescue,” Rey said. “We aren’t going to leave our injured or dead there.”
He declined to say when the next rescue attempt would be made.
Since the army started deploying more troops in the VRAE in August 2008, 40 soldiers have been killed and the army has claimed only a handful of deaths among rebels. President Alan Garcia is under increasing pressure to turn the tide.
Garcia has increased funding in the VRAE to wipe out the last of the Shining Path, which has largely abandoned its Maoist ideology and war against the state to work in the lucrative drug trade instead.
Peru’s government insists the trouble will not hurt foreign investment, but two big mining projects are located in or around the VRAE: Southern Copper’s PCU.N Los Chancas and Xstrata’s XTA.L Las Bambas.
Peru is the world’s No. 2 cocaine producer and analysts say it could overtake Colombia as the world’s top producer within the next few years.
Colombia, which receives billions of dollars in anti-drug aid from the United States, has stepped up eradication efforts.
Peruvian producers are trying to fill the void and the VRAE has become the densest and most productive coca-growing area in the world. (Reporting by Terry Wade and Patricia Velez, Editing by Sandra Maler)