How the `genius' of a tiny band of terrorists eclipsed the Shining Path How tiny terror groups genius eclipsed the Shadowy errorists who eclipsed the Shining Path

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The Independent Online
Peru's Tupac Amaru guerrilla group had long lived in the shadow of the larger, more famous Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). Not any more. In its daring, planning and execution, Tuesday's attack on a Japanese diplomatic reception in Lima surpassed any of Shining Path's terrorist operations.

"It was a work of genius, the perfect target at the perfect time," said a senior European diplomat who did not attend the reception at the Japanese ambassador's residence. He was referring to the fact that many Peruvians have been increasingly critical of growing Japanese influence in the economy, encouraged by President Alberto Fujimori, himself of Japanese origin. "And to get so many dips [diplomats], government members, Japanese businessmen and other bigwigs together at the same time, sipping champagne and nibbling canapes, is bound to have a certain resonance among the left and the poor."

While Shining Path was always Maoist, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, known in Spanish by its initials, MRTA, followed the ideals of Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution. The Peruvian military has long accused the Castro regime of supplying it with arms, cash and training.

Tupac Amaru was the name of an Inca chief who resisted the Spanish conquistadores but was captured and executed in 1572. But the guerrilla group took the name from a later fighter, Jose Gabriel Condorcanqui, who used the nom de guerre Tupac Amaru II and was executed in 1781 for leading an unsuccessful revolt against the Spaniards.

The group carried out its first attacks in 1984, two years after the emergence of Shining Path. While the latter built up a network of up to 10,000 members by the end of the Eighties, mostly in urban shantytowns or remote mountain or jungle villages, Tupac Amaru was never thought to number more than 1,000. The Lima assailants say up to 500 MRTA members are in jail and are demanding their release in return for the hostages' freedom.

The MRTA appeared to have been largely crushed in 1992, the year President Fujimori broke the back of Shining Path with the capture of that group's leader, Abimael Guzman, now serving a life sentence in solitary confinement. In June of that year, Tupac Amaru's leader, Victor Polay, was captured and is also now doing life. His release is one of the Lima assailants key demands.

The group hit the headlines a year ago when a young New York woman, Lori Berenson, was among several members or sympathisers detained in Lima. She was sentenced to life by a "faceless" military tribunal - army officers who keep their identity secret by using one-way mirror screens in court.

She was accused of helping plan a takeover of the Peruvian Congress, a plan which diplomats say may later have been adapted to Tuesday's attack on the Japanese reception.

The hostage drama is a blow to President Fujimori, whose chief claim to popularity was that he ended the long guerrilla conflict. Although his popularity has been waning, he recently persuaded Congress to accept a bit of legal sleight-of-hand - a new interpretation of the constitution - which will let him run for a third five-year term in 2000. His authoritarian style and eagerness to cling to power have already shown signs of provoking a resurgence of the left.

The Marxist guerrilla groups which fought or terrorised right-wing or military governments throughout Latin America for three decades most fizzled away as democracy took hold. But a tendency towards power-hugging by Latin leaders shows signs of boosting sympathy with leftist, anti-government groups.

Mr Fujimori, Argentina's Carlos Menem, Brazil's Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Ecuador's Abdala Bucaram are all talking of running again, even if it means tampering with their constitutions.

In Mexico, the Peoples Revolutionary Army attacked official targets in the south this year.