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US: Kidnap threat for travelers to Machu Picchu

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LIMA, Peru (AP) — A U.S. Embassy warning to U.S. tourists of a potential kidnapping threat in the Cuzco region, including the famed Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, drew vehement objections from Peruvian officials Friday.

But a U.S. Embassy official said credible evidence exists of a threat from a Peruvian terrorist group.

The official confirmed a report in the Peruvian newspaper La Republica that said leaders of the cocaine-financed Shining Path outlaw band discussed kidnapping foreigners, principally Americans, in intercepted communications. Tens of thousands of Americans visit Peru each year.

The official agreed to discuss the report only if not quoted by name due to the political sensitivity of the warning.

La Republica cited sources about the interceptions including members of Peru's military high command, but the country's military chief, Adm. Jose Cueto, told The Associated Press that he had no such information.

"Perhaps it is information that they alone have and have not shared," Cueto said of the U.S. government.

The embassy warning that mentioned Peru's biggest tourist draw was posted on the U.S. Embassy's Facebook page Thursday. Dated Feb. 13, it was also posted on the embassy's website.

It says a "criminal organization may be planning to kidnap U.S. citizen tourists in the Cuzco and Machu Picchu area. Possible targets and methods are not known and the threat is credible at least through the end of February 2013."

The warning says U.S. Embassy personnel are barred from visiting Machu Picchu and nearby Cuzco unless on official business, which is restricted.

"It's very rare that it would be so pointed to us," the U.S. official said of the threat.

The mayor of Cuzco, Luis Florez, called on U.S. Ambassador Rose Likins to retract the warning.

"Tourism is an incredibly sensitive topic and they would be damaging a big source of earnings at the national level," he told reporters after a group of mayors met with President Ollanta Humala.

But Likins said the U.S. government is obliged by law to inform its citizens of any information regarding their security. "In this case we received information that we consider reliable," she told RPP radio, without going into the details outlined by the embassy official to the AP.

The Maoist-inspired Shining Path was all but decimated by the time the U.S. State Department designated it as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997. Its remnants now number about 500 and have become an increasingly potent and disciplined fighting force, funding itself by taxing drug traffickers in Peru's coca-growing heartland.

Shining Path's radius of action has in recent years expanded to include the northern jungle Convencion region of Cuzco state, where La Republica said the conversations were intercepted and where the Camisea natural gas project is located.

In that region, a rugged 100 miles north of Machu Picchu, Shining Path fighters last April briefly kidnapped 36 construction workers near a Camisea site. All were released unharmed but the rebels killed eight soldiers and police officers sent to rescue them. The group has killed more than 80 Peruvian soldiers since 2008, mostly in ambushes.

The Convencion district also includes Choquequirao, another set of Incan ruins increasingly popular with tourists but reachable only on foot or horseback.

U.S. law enforcement and the Pentagon have been assisting Peru in pursuing Shining Path, which Humala's government considers its chief security threat.

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Frank Bajak on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fbajak

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Associated Press writer Carla Salazar contributed to this report.

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