* Rescue mission follows failed bid to retrieve soldiers
* Fiercest clashes of the year in big coca-growing region
By Patricia Velez
LIMA, Sept 4 (Reuters) - Peru’s army rescued eight soldiers wounded by Shining Path rebels, the defense ministry said on Friday, after a week of setbacks for the army amid the heaviest fighting of 2009 in the world’s largest coca-growing region.
Three of the soldiers retrieved in the rescue mission had been wounded and left behind on Tuesday after a clash between the army and communist Shining Path guerrillas in an Andean jungle in central Peru. The other five had been wounded on Wednesday when the rebels shot down a helicopter sent by the army in a failed mission to bring back the first three.
In the successful rescue operation, the army used helicopters to pick up the eight wounded soldiers near a village called Sinaycocha, a defense ministry official said.
The recent clashes between the army and the rebels have been the fiercest of the year. Three army soldiers were killed in Wednesday’s failed rescue mission.
Soldiers have come under fire at least four times since last week, when the army launched a raid to catch Jorge Quispe, a leader of the Shining Path who the government says helps direct cocaine trafficking in the Ene and Apurimac River Valleys of Peru. The region is known as the VRAE.
Quispe remains on the run. Critics say President Alan Garcia must do more to stamp out the Shining Path or Peru will overtake Colombia as the world’s top cocaine producer. Coca is the raw material for making cocaine.
The Peruvian constitution prohibits Garcia from running for re-election in 2011. Politicians planning to make bids for the presidency already are using the government’s inability to seize control of the coca-growing region as a campaign issue.
‘RECOVERING OUR DEAD’
"The job of recovering our dead still remains, and we’ve already started work on that," Defense Minister Rafael Rey said on local RPP radio.
Since the army started to send more troops to the VRAE in August 2008, 40 soldiers have been killed. The government has stated that it has killed only a handful of rebels.
Garcia has increased funding to try to wipe out the last of the Shining Path, which had largely collapsed after its leaders were captured by government forces in the early 1990s and now has become increasingly involved in the lucrative drug trade.
Peru has struggled to gain control over remote coca-growing regions, where rebels cultivate ties with communities where people see growing and processing coca as a way to get a small slice of the cocaine business and escape grinding poverty.
The government insists the trouble will not hurt foreign investment. Two big mining projects are located in or around the VRAE: Southern Copper’s PCU.N Los Chancas and Xstrata’s XTA.L Las Bambas.
Colombia, which gets billions on dollars in U.S. anti-drug aid, has stepped up coca eradication efforts. But Peruvian producers are filling the void, and the VRAE has become the densest and most productive coca-growing area in the world.
(Reporting by Patricia Velez; Writing by Dana Ford; Editing by Terry Wade and Will Dunham)