Peru goes to polls despite bombings

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LIMA - Despite a new wave of attacks by Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas, more than 11 million Peruvians are expected to vote today in municipal elections seen as a guide to the popularity of President Alberto Fujimori exactly half-way through his five-year term.

The guerrillas have tried everything to keep voters away from the ballot boxes, including in the capital, Lima, where the post of mayor is perhaps the most significant power base after that of the President. Shining Path, attempting to show it is not a spent force despite the detention of its leader, Abimael Guzman, launched a wave of attacks in the hours before the vote, including one on the polling station where Mr Fujimori was expected to vote today.

In the past two months the guerrillas have assassinated at least 15 candidates for mayor or town councillor in today's elections. Yesterday, in the Villa El Salvador district of the capital, guerrillas presumed to be from the Shining Path killed one candidate and his wife. Bomb blasts could be heard in Lima all day.

The Shining Path declared a two-day 'armed strike' throughout the country yesterday and today, in an apparent attempt to discourage people from voting. Bus drivers were threatened with death if they took their vehicles out on the road.

To counteract the threat, the government unexpectedly declared both yesterday and today as holidays, ostensibly to allow voters to reach their home regions but partly to take the steam out of the guerrilla threat. As a result, the effect of the guerrillas' threats was difficult to gauge.

Facing what appeared to be certain defeat, the candidate of Mr Fujimori's Cambio 90 party has pulled out of the race for mayor of Lima. The withdrawal of the candidate, Pablo Gutierrez, was seen as an attempt by Mr Fujimori to avoid being too closely identified with defeat in the capital.

With almost 40 candidates for mayor of Lima, the most likely winner is Ricardo Belmont, the 47-year-old incumbent. Watching the way the wind is blowing, Mr Fujimori has in recent days indicated support for Mr Belmont. Mr Belmont's main opposition is the mayor of Arequipa, Luis Caceres, 62, known for his tough law- and-order measures. Mr Fujimori is said to see Mr Caceres as a potential threat nationwide if his bid for mayor of Lima is successful.