LIMA (Reuters) - The Shining Path rebel group's top two fighters are believed to have been killed in a shootout with Peruvian security forces in a drug-trafficking region of the jungle late on Sunday, President Ollanta Humala said on Monday.
The clash with rebels in the south-central Ayacucho region likely killed Marco Antonio Quispe, or "Comrade Gabriel," a cocaine-running heavyweight, and Alejandro Borda Casafranca, or "Comrade Alipio," the second-in-command of the group's reduced jungle faction.
"Intelligence sources that took part in this operation confirm ... they would be the number one and number two in control of Shining Path's military structure," Humala said on television.
Authorities are performing autopsies to confirm identities.
Humala said a third rebel believed to be Borda's close colleague was also killed in the military operation in the drug-trafficking area known as the VRAEM, the most densely planted coca-growing regions in the world.
The swath of mountainous river valleys is the favored hideout of Shining Path insurgents who went into the drug trade after the group's key leaders were captured in the 1990s.
The attack would be the biggest blow to the rebel group and the drug-trafficking operations they control since the military captured a top ideological leader last year.
Peru is virtually tied with Colombia as the world's top cocaine producer. This year, Peru announced it would eradicate coca fields for the first time in the VRAEM in a bid to intensify anti-drug efforts.
Quispe helped orchestrate the kidnapping of 36 natural gas workers last year.
The hostages were released unharmed, but soldiers searching for them were killed by rebels in an operation that embarrassed the Humala administration. Quispe had bragged to journalists that the kidnapping was only intended to lure security forces into an ambush.
Plans to expand Peru's main natural gas pipeline have been delayed because of ongoing rebel threats in the area.
(Reporting By Patricia Velez, Omar Marilus, and Enrique Mandujano, Writing by Mitra Taj; Editing by Philip Barbara)