Fresh commandos were on the trail of Shining Path guerrillas yesterday, two days after the rebels staged their boldest attack in four years, killing seven, Peruvian army sources said.
A band of rebels caught a patrol of marines and army special forces in a deadly crossfire on Thursday afternoon as the soldiers stopped to eat in a jungle clearing.
Hidden in the shadows and thick vegetation, the rebels killed or wounded half of the 30-man patrol, apparently without taking any losses, an army officer said on the condition of anonymity.
Dozens of reinforcements have since been flown to the military base beside this small village on the Apurimac River some 355km southeast of Lima, the officer said.
The attack came a month after guerrillas kidnapped 71 people from a pipeline camp in the same general area and indicates a Shining Path resurgence.
Sandro Paul Salazar, 29, a community self-defense leader -- or rondero -- said he saw 70 rebels enter the village of Matucana, some 16km east of Pichari, on Wednesday night looking to buy supplies.
"They said not to be afraid. They said they were only going to fight the army and not civilians," Salazar said as he stood outside a hospital in San Francisco, 10km south of Pichari.
Salazar was waiting for the army to deliver the body of his brother, one of two rondero guides slain in Thursday's ambush outside of Matucana.
The Maoism-inspired Shining Path launched its armed conflict in 1980 after a decade of planning.
By the early 1990s the group almost brought the Peruvian government to its knees, assassinating mayors and peasants unwilling to support them in the countryside and waging a car-bomb campaign in Lima, the capital.
The violence dropped significantly with the capture of founder Abimael Guzman in 1992. But the rebel faction operating in the area of Thursday's attack apparently has made a break from Guzman, who is seeking a negotiated settlement that includes amnesty for hundreds of imprisoned rebels.
The Defense Ministry said on Friday that an army major, three special forces soldiers, a marine and two rondero guides were killed in the ambush. An army officer said another 10 were wounded.
Since the June kidnapping, 20 police and military patrols have been combing the thick, jungle-covered gorges that run down the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains in search of the rebels.
Prior to Thursday's ambush, one soldier had been killed and at least two wounded on patrols.
Salazar said the rebels were carrying new weapons, including lightweight Israeli-made assault rifles, heavy machine guns and grenade launchers.
During their heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the guerrillas relied on secondhand weapons stolen from police and soldiers.
The ambush took place in a region where coca -- the main ingredient in cocaine -- is grown.
Villagers in the area say the Shining Path is providing protection to drug traffickers.
They say they have seen armed rebels escort mule trains packed down with partially refined cocaine out of the Apurimac River valley.
Salazar said the rebels told the villagers of Matucana that they support the cultivation of coca. Other villagers said the guerrillas are now buying supplies instead of stealing them during raids, as in the past.
Anti-terrorism police believe some 330 guerrillas are operating in the area of the ambush. By the early 1990s, the Shining Path counted some 10,000 fighters among its ranks.