Peru's shame at rebel war that claimed 69,000 lives

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Peru's fragile democracy has been shaken to its core by an official report showing that more than 69,000 people died in two decades of guerrilla war between successive governments and Marxist rebels, in which both sides committed what the report's chief author described as "crimes against humanity".

The report by a government-appointed Truth and Reconciliation Commission was based on evidence taken from 17,000 people in 530 villages.

It blames the rebels, predominantly the Shining Path movement, for more than half of the killings. The death toll given in the report is more than double most previous estimates for the conflict, which ran between 1980 and 2000.

But the report says that some 30 per cent of the victims were killed by the Peruvian military during brutal counter-insurgency operations, while most of the remainder were murdered by peasant militias, supported and armed by the government.

The victims, overwhelmingly, were Quechua-speaking Indians, who had nothing to do with the war, but were trapped between government forces and the rebels.

Peru had to confront "a national shame", said Salomon Lerner, head of the commission. The closing decades of the 20th century were ones of "horror and dishonour" for the country, in which "crimes against humanity were practised by subversive organisations against society, or by the Peruvian state through members of the security forces".

Nowhere suffered more severely than the Andean highland province of Ayacucho, home to more than 40 per cent of those who were killed or who disappeared without trace. Yesterday the report was being formally presented in a special ceremony in the city of Ayacucho, about 200 miles south-east of Lima.

According to the commission, the worst of the violence took place during the 1980s, peaking in 1984 when Shining Path massacred villagers in the central highlands, and the government responded with a scarcely less savage clampdown of its own.

As documented by the nine-volume report, running to several thousand pages, the killing tapered off after 1992, when Abimael Guzman, the founder of Shining Path, was captured, and the disgraced former president, Alberto Fujimori, disbanded the parliament and brought in martial law.

Far from closing the final chapter on a grisly past, however, the report threatens to reopen deep fissures in Peruvian society. In particular it confronts President Alejandro Toledo with a dilemma, at a moment when his popularity is at a low ebb and Peru's democracy, brought back after the downfall of President Fujimori three years ago, has rarely looked more fragile.

On the one hand, Mr Toledo faces growing calls from the Peruvian left as well as international human rights groups to launch criminal prosecutions against those implicated in the report, some of them retired military figures and former politicians.

"We have a chance to change history and end immunity in Peru," Sergio Messa, the head of the Peruvian branch of Amnesty International declared. But conservative politicians, the army and elements of the country's Catholic Church have sharply criticised the commission, saying it had been tilted in favour of Shining Path, at a time when the movement was showing new signs of activity in remote upland regions.

"The rebels have had influence in the Truth Commission," one former general, German Parra, bluntly alleged. The report has also been opposed by followers of Alan Garcia, who was president between 1985 and 1990. He was strongly criticised by the report. Mr Garcia plans to make a new challenge for the country's highest office.

President Toledo is trying to steer between the conflicting pressures. He called for "justice and reparations" for the victims but issued a statement of support for the armed forces. "We can't open the doors to the future," he said, "without looking first at the past".

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