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Peru's defense and interior ministers resign

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu May 10, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lawmakers had been scheduled to vote on whether to censure the officials Saturday
  • Their resignation comes after eight police die in clashes with Shining Path rebels
  • The clashes occurred during a rescue operation after 36 gas workers were kidnapped
  • The workers were released, but critics rapped the Cabinet officials' handling of the situation

Lima, Peru (CNN) -- Two top Peruvian officials resigned Thursday amid a growing public outcry over clashes between government forces and Shining Path rebels.

The resignation of Defense Minister Alberto Otarola and Interior Minister Daniel Lozada comes several weeks after the deaths of eight police during a rescue operation connected with the kidnapping of dozens of gas workers by remnants of the rebel group.

The 36 gas workers were released uninjured.

But opposition lawmakers have criticized the Cabinet officials' handling of the situation, accusing them of abandoning their own forces and not doing enough to protect them. Lawmakers were scheduled to debate the possibility of censuring the officials Saturday.

One police official involved in the operation, Cesar Vilca, was left in the jungle during "Operation Liberty" after a government helicopter took off during clashes with the rebels. His father found his body days later.

"All of Peru has seen that (the government) didn't do anything to look for them. If they had gone there, as his father did, they would have found him alive," said Robert Vargas, a friend of Vilca.

Another police official left behind by the helicopter walked for more than three weeks -- with two bullet wounds -- until he reached a military base in Cusco, Peru.

As he announced his resignation Wednesday, Otarola defended the helicopter pilot who left the jungle during the clashes. If the pilot had not acted quickly, he said, 18 other troops could have died in the fighting.

"Now is not the time to search for those responsible in the past, but rather to make decisions that address the lack of equipment for our troops. It is our duty to respond to the valiance and courage of our soldiers who risk their lives daily," he said.

He called on Peruvians to come together, saying he regretted the recent "unnecessary political polarization" surrounding the rescue operation.

"Let my resignation signify to the great national unity that the country needs to close ranks around the armed forces. If my presence has been considered a force preventing national unity, I feel proud to step aside," Otarola continued.

The kidnapping of the gas workers in April came after authorities' announcements that they had significantly dismantled and defeated the Maoist rebel group.

At its peak, the Shining Path spread terror in the country through a bombing campaign that targeted buildings and key infrastructure, such as electricity towers. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Peruvian government fought a campaign that greatly reduced the capacity of the group.

After Peruvian authorities captured a longtime leader of the group in February, President Ollanta Humala said the group was "no longer a threat to the country."

Journalist Maria Elena Belaunde contributed to this report.

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