U.S. ends kidnapping alert for Peru's Machu Picchu

LIMA Wed Mar 6, 2013 7:37pm EST

File photo of the Inca citadel Machu Picchu in the Andean city of Cusco.

File photo of the Inca citadel Machu Picchu in the Andean city of Cusco.

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LIMA (Reuters) - The State Department lifted a kidnapping alert for U.S. citizens traveling to Peru's awesome Machu Picchu ruins and the surrounding Cusco region after a review of the threat, the U.S. embassy said on Wednesday.

Last month the U.S. Embassy restricted official travel to Machu Picchu and said it had information that a criminal group was plotting to kidnap U.S. tourists there.

Though it did not mention a motive for potential kidnappings, the warning was widely interpreted as linked to Peru's renewed attempt to crack down on coca growing in a slew of jungle valleys known as the VRAEM controlled by a remnant band of Maoist Shining Path rebels.

Peruvian officials, including President Ollanta Humala, said at the time they did not think the embassy's February kidnapping alert was credible.

The embassy on Wednesday cautioned citizens to be careful near the VRAEM, which includes part of the Cusco region that is home to Machu Picchu.

"The Embassy continues to strongly recommend that when traveling in areas near the Peruvian "VRAEM" ... U.S. citizens heighten their security awareness and implement additional security measures," the embassy said in a statement.

Last year, rebels kidnapped 36 Peruvian natural gas workers in La Convencion, Cusco, about 100 miles from Machu Picchu. The hostages were later released unharmed.

Machu Picchu, an important site during the Incan empire, draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to Peru every year and many Peruvians said they feared the alert would hurt tourism revenues.

Those concerns were sharpened when family members of two Californians traveling in Cusco reported the couple - Garrett Hand and Jamie Neal - as missing after losing contact with them for a few weeks.

Their families, aware of the kidnapping threat, asked the embassy and the media to help find them, and demanded proof the travelers were alive even after Peruvian police said they had been spotted in the Peruvian Amazon.

The tourism ministry eventually tracked down the couple, said to be having a "fantastic time" on a river journey in the jungle, and put them in touch with their families.

(Reporting by Mitra Taj; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)

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