LIMA, Peru (AP) — The bodies of two men slain by security forces were flown to Lima on Monday for DNA tests that authorities believed would show they were two of the Shining Path rebels' four leaders as officials claimed a major blow to the cocaine-funded insurgency.
President Ollanta Humala tentatively identified them as "Comrade Gabriel," or Marco Antonio Quispe Palomino, the youngest of three brothers from the Quispe Palomino clan that commands an estimated 500 fighters, and "Comrade Alipio" or Alejandro Borda Casafranca, the group's military chief.
Officials said they did not know the identity of a third guerrilla also killed Sunday night in explosions and fire in the Apurimac and Ene river valley of southeastern Peru, a region of dense jungles, rugged hills and few roads that has long been a redoubt of the Quispe Palomino gang.
The armed forces chief, Adm. Jose Cueto, told The Associated Press that authorities had little doubt that the DNA tests would confirm they got their targets.
"Alipio for certain. Still to be determined is Gabriel, but it is nearly certain that it is him as well," Cueto said.
Interior Minister Wilfredo Pedraza and Defense Minister Pedro Cateriano, who flew back with the three bodies to Lima, told reporters at the airport that the deaths culminated a joint police-military operation begun in late July called "Chameleon."
"It was not a coincidence," Pedraza said.
"Today is a holiday and a day of national unity," said Cateriano.
In announcing the deaths earlier Monday, Humala credited a joint command that had combined police investigators and elite soldiers.
A Shining Path expert in the region, Pedro Yaranga, told the AP that security forces had collaborators who had infiltrated the Shining Path band, leading them to the rebel chiefs. He said they attacked the guerrillas with grenades when they were in a jungle hut. He said the hut caught fire and the rebels were apparently burned beyond recognition.
"They were after Alipio. The surprise is that Gabrial was in the same place," said Yaranga.
Cateriano said, without elaborating, that the three died "in explosions and then in a fire." Cueto said they perished between about 10 p.m. and midnight.
The Quispe Palomino band is the last remnant of the Shining Path insurgency that devastated Peru from 1980 to 2000. Since 2008, its fighters have killed about 100 Peruvian soldiers in the river valley as it has become the world's biggest coca-producing region.
In one publicity-grabbing act in April 2012, Shining Path fighters apparently led by Comrade Gabriel briefly kidnapped 36 construction workers employed in the Camisea natural gas project. They then killed eight soldiers and police officers sent to rescue the workers in a fiasco that cost a pair of defense and interior ministers their jobs.
This month, the rebels were blamed for the destruction of heavy equipment used in a road-building project after extortion money went unpaid. That project is near Llochegua, where the rebels were killed Sunday night.
Drug experts say Peru has almost certainly supplanted Colombia as the world's No. 1 cocaine-producing country, with much of the product transiting the region where the Quispe Palomino clan holds sway over the local population.
Much of Peruvian cocaine is flown or transported by land, only partially processed, to Bolivia.
A smaller Shining Path remnant that operated in the Upper Huallaga valley, another coca-growing region, was dismantled early last year with the capture of its leader, Comrade Artemio. He was sentenced to life in prison in June for terrorism, drug trafficking and other crimes.
Associated Press writer Carla Salazar contributed to this report.
Frank Bajak on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fbajak