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Blast may herald rebels' return

Just as President Bush set off Thursday on a three-nation trip to Latin America, one of the region's most violent left-wing groups may have re-emerged with a familiar and deadly welcome mat.

Despite a car bomb that killed nine people near the U.S. Embassy in Lima, Peru, late Wednesday, Bush said he would continue with an official visit there this weekend.

Although no one has claimed responsibility, Peruvian officials described the attack as coming from a group thought to have been all but stamped out.

Officials said the bombing bore the hallmark of Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, the ruthless Maoist group that terrorized the country for 15 years until most of its leaders were rounded up and jailed in 1992.

Bush, who is due to arrive in the Peruvian capital Saturday for a 17-hour visit, dismissed the attack Thursday as the work of "two-bit terrorists." But that is not how many Peruvians recall Shining Path, which in its heyday held sway over large parts of the countryside and rocked the capital with car bombs so often that residents were afraid to leave their homes.

Peru's leading daily, El Comercio, summed up local fears with the headline "Terrorism shows its cowardly face once more."

Even so, analysts noted that Shining Path is no longer the threat it once was, and praised Bush's resolve in not allowing terrorism to alter his schedule.

"Sendero is taking the opportunity to send Mr. Bush a welcome present to show they are still around," said Dennis Jett, who served as U.S. ambassador to Peru from 1996 to 1999. "But I don't think it means much more than that. Sendero didn't go away altogether, but they don't have the same capability as before."

Jett, now dean of international studies at the University of Florida, recalled how Fortune magazine named Peru the riskiest place to do business in the early 1990s, and experts debated if Shining Path might one day take power.

During the 1980s and '90s, Shining Path and the country's other main left-wing outlaws, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, known by its Spanish abbreviation MRTA, were responsible for an estimated $25-billion in destruction and 30,000 deaths.

One of the worst attacks was a huge car bombing on a shopping street in Lima in 1992 that killed 20 people and injured 200, including many women and children.

The group has been largely out of action for the last nine years after its messianic founder, Abimael Guzman, was arrested in 1992 and jailed for life.

But recent reports have indicated that both Shining Path and MRTA may be regrouping. Peru said late last year that it had foiled a Shining Path attack on the U.S. Embassy in Lima. In August, a group of about 100 Shining Path rebels ambushed antiterrorist police in the Satipo jungle region in central Peru. The attack resulted in some 19 deaths.

After the arrest of Guzman the group split. Die-hards took a new name _ Sendero Rojo, or Red Path _ but were largely confined to remote rural areas of the highlands.

Analysts estimate the group's strength at no more than 300 to 400 people, financed by dealings with drug traffickers. The group's last known bomb attack was in May 1997.

Although Peru does not have a history of involvement in international terrorism, last year Peruvian intelligence officials said Islamic fundamentalists had used Peru as a transit point on their way to other parts of South America. Peru's National Intelligence Council issued a statement saying the Andean region was "threatened by a possible expansion of Islamic terrorism," noting two bloody attacks on Israeli targets in Argentina.

In January 2000, Vladimiro Montesinos, Peru's now jailed former intelligence chief, was recorded on video as saying that Lima had been used as a "rest area" for Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida group.

No one has so far claimed responsibility for Wednesday night's bomb, which exploded across the street from the embassy. No Americans were reported among the dead or 30 injured, who included two police officers and an 18-year-old inline skater.

The explosion was so powerful that people at the scene described finding one body about 165 feet from the blast on the other side of a four-lane avenue. Part of a car engine lay nearby.

The 66-pound bomb went off about 10:45 p.m. outside a bank in a mall opposite the main entrance of the U.S. Embassy, a heavily secured fortress-style building in the wealthy Monterrico suburb of the capital. Diplomatic officials said the Polo shopping center also houses a hotel where many of the White House advance party were staying.

The embassy itself was unscathed.

A mall employee told a Peruvian Internet news agency that she saw six people drive away with tires spinning in two cars moments before the explosion.

In a statement the U.S. Embassy offered its "deepest sympathies" to the victims, as well as a pledge of Washington's support to capture the bombers.

Peru's president, Alejandro Toledo, speaking at a United Nations summit in Mexico where Bush was due to arrive, said he had personally guaranteed the U.S. president's safety over the weekend.

"I will not permit democracy to be undermined by terrorist attacks," Toledo said. "We will not give one centimeter."

After an emergency early-morning Cabinet meeting, Vice President Raul Diez Canseco announced special measures to redouble security in advance of Bush's arrival. He ordered the normally bustling colonial district in the center of the city sealed off and police patrols stepped up.

Even before the bomb, Peru had been planning to deploy 7,000 police officers to guard the capital. The Peruvian government had also announced that it would ban flights over Lima and shoot down unauthorized air traffic during Bush's trip.

Even so, protests are expected. Partly due to the country's history of violence, Bush's visit to Peru is the first by any sitting American president. Anti-Americanism still runs deep in some sectors. This week posters have appeared on streets in the capital saying "Bush _ go away," "Yankee go home" and "You won't make it to Peru alive."

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.