A helicopter searching for dozens of rebel-held hostages in Peru’s Amazon jungle was attacked with gunfire on Thursday and a police captain on board was killed and three people were wounded, including the pilot, the Interior Ministry said.
The attack came as the government sent 1,500 soldiers and police to the area near Peru’s key Camisea gas field to try to rescue 40 construction workers who were grabbed on Monday by Maoist Shining Path guerrillas. Officials say the rebels have demanded US$10 million in ransom.
Gunfire from a group of rebels tore through the helicopter as it was patrolling an area of lakes in the Echarate District, and police Captain Nancy Flores died, the Interior Ministry said in a statement. It said the pilot, a police technician and a civilian suffered wounds. Those on board the helicopter were part of the recently deployed force.
Mayor Fedia Castro of Convencion municipality, which includes the town where the workers were abducted, told the radio station Radioprogramas that the civilian wounded on the helicopter was working as a guide.
Peruvian President Ollanta Humala urged the hostages’ families to trust in the authorities, and he vowed to capture and prosecute the kidnappers.
“We hope that in a very short time we can resolve the problem, aiming for the cost to be zero,” Humala told reporters before news of the shooting emerged.
Local officials have said the workers were kidnapped in the hamlet of Kepashiato, near the country’s main natural gas field in the Amazon jungle. Those who were abducted were working as contractors on gas industry projects.
“The government doesn’t negotiate with terrorists,” Justice Minister Juan Jimenez said on Thursday in an interview with Panamericana Television.
The Defense Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday night that 1,500 soldiers and police were involved in the search and rescue operation.
The abducted Peruvian workers, who began building a new gas treatment plant last year, were rounded up at about 3am on Monday from their hotels, Kepashiato Mayor Rosalio Sanchez has said. The mayor said the rebels lingered for three hours, buying groceries and summoning about 20 residents to an assembly where they condemned the government and the natural gas industry.
Sanchez said people in the town fear the rebels could return and that as of Thursday there were no soldiers or police in the town.
“They could come back at any time. There’s no protection,” Sanchez said by phone.
Among the kidnapped workers, 29 were employees of the construction company Skanska of Sweden.
“There’s not that much I can say in regard to their safety. We’re cooperating with our client and the authorities there,” said Edvard Lind, Skanska’s spokesman in Sweden.
As for the company’s future projects in Peru, he said: “We see big opportunities in Peru, but right now we’re focusing on getting our colleagues released.”
Such mass abductions are rare in Peru, and this week’s kidnapping showed a new brazenness from the Shining Path.
The cocaine-trade funded rebel band is a small remnant of the Maoist group that terrorized Peru in the 1980s and 1990s. It is believed to number about 300 to 500 fighters and is centered in the Ene and Apurimac Valley region where more than half of Peru’s coca crop is grown. The town where the kidnapping occurred is located in an adjacent region.