LIMA (Reuters) - Shining Path rebels on Friday killed three members of Peru's security forces and wounded two others while they were searching for police who disappeared in an earlier ambush, the armed forces said.
It was the latest setback to the government's push to retake a lawless bundle of jungle valleys in southeastern Peru where a remnant band of Maoist rebels runs cocaine trafficking in the world's most densely planted region of coca plantations.
"Two patrol groups of the armed forces clashed with narco-terrorists," the high command of the armed forces said in a statement. "Operations have been intensified in the zone to capture them."
President Ollanta Humala, a former military officer, has increased troop deployments as he responds to a public outcry that rebels brazenly kidnapped 36 natural gas workers, shot down a helicopter and killed up to six security agents two weeks ago.
The search team was trying to find two of those security agents, both members of the national police force, when it was fired upon by rebels, the army said.
Taking control of the region in the Ene and Apurimac River Valleys, where the military estimates there are about 400 rebels, is crucial for Humala's economic plans.
Peru's main natural gas pipeline originates in the nearby Camisea fields and last month Humala said construction would start soon on a second, $3 billion pipeline to feed a new petrochemical complex on the Pacific coast that could draw $13 billion in foreign investment.
Holdout rebels, whose force is now too weak to threaten the government, went into the cocaine-trafficking business after the founders of the group were arrested in the early 1990s.
The Shining Path, or Sendero Luminoso in Spanish, launched a war to overthrow the state in 1980, and some 70,000 people were killed in the conflict. Over the last three years, some 60 security agents have died in skirmishes with what remains of the rebels.
(Reporting By Terry Wade, Editing by Jackie Frank)