Peru's military under scrutiny over handling of leftist guerrillas

The massacre of several hundred accused guerrilla prisoners here has focused world attention on how the Peruvian armed forces is handling the insurgency that erupted here six years ago. At least 250 inmates belonging to the radical Maoist Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, guerrilla movement were killed last month when troops stormed three prisons in or near Lima to put down prisoner uprisings.

The government and military immediately came under harsh criticism from opposition forces that charge undue force was used. The controversy is regarded by diplomats as the biggest crisis of Peru's 11-month-old Social Democratic government -- hinting at the civilian leadership's inability to deal effectively with the guerrillas or control the military.

At Lurigancho prison, some 100 inmates are alleged to have been executed by the paramilitary Republican Guard after the prisoners surrendered. Many more are said to have been killed by the military forces that took part in the assaults on the prisons.

The government of President Alan Garc'ia P'erez put the prisons under temporary military control after the outbreak of the rebellions on June 18. President Garc'ia initially defended the military's use of force, then condemned the executions when evidence of them became public and said those responsible would be punished. Some 100 guardsmen have been arrested, the head of the Republican Guard dismissed, and the Peruvian justice minister has resigned over the incident.

The controversy illustrates the growing tension between the ideals of democratic government and the demands of the counterinsurgency war here. The war has taken a toll of more than 7,500 lives since Sendero began trying to oust the Peruvian government six years ago.

When Garc'ia came to power, he promised to react to the guerrilla challenge by dealing with the social injustice and economic hardship that fuel the movement.

Garc'ia has spoken strongly against excessive use of force in containing the insurgency. In a speech in Buenos Aires in March, Garc'ia declared that, ``nothing justifies torture, nothing justifies disappearances or illegal executions.''

Despite Garc'ia's efforts, the frequency and intensity of guerrilla attacks has increased in recent months, reaching a highpoint in the recent prison rebellion.

Efforts by security forces to contain Sendero's growing activity have lead to a growing number of charges of human rights abuses. In Huancapi, for example, a leader of the local United Left Party, the main opposition party, was reported seized and beaten by the military in view of townspeople. His relatives found his burned body 12 days later.

Amnesty International has expressed concern over the continuing pattern of arbitrary arrest, torture, and disappearances associated with Peru's security forces. Under the state of emergency proclaimed in February and renewed twice because of guerrilla activity, law and order in Lima and the nearby port of Callao are enforced by the military. In addition, several Peruvian provinces have been under virtual military control since 1983, when then-President Fernando Bela'unde Terry gave the military broad powers to deal with the guerrillas.

The military killings and kidnappings go on for several reasons, according to analysts. When Sendero began its operations, it won support among peasants for its attacks on landowners and businessmen it viewed as oppressive. Sendero forces often distributed seized land and goods to the poor.

The Army responded by allegedly killing peasants who gave the guerrillas support. Many peasants have now turned against Sendero, both because of military pressure and the guerrilla's attacks on civilians.

Though President Garc'ia is known to make a distinction between the United Left opposition and Sendero, the Army does not. The military is accused of targeting leftist activists involved in organizing peasants.

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