By Mitra Taj and Marco Aquino
LIMA, Jan 8 (Reuters) - Peru, the world's top cocaine producer, will destroy 75 percent of coca fields in a lawless jungle area controlled by insurgents, marking the first eradication effort in the rebel-held territory, an official said on Wednesday.
Carmen Masias, the head of the anti-drug agency Devida, said anti-narcotics police backed by military forces will uproot coca plants - the key ingredient in cocaine - over 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) of the southeastern Amazonian region known as the VRAEM.
The collection of river valleys is the most densely planted coca-growing area in the world and the favored hideout of a group of Shining Path rebels who got involved in the drug trade after their leaders were captured in the 1990s.
With an estimated 200 to 500 members, the Shining Path no longer represents a strategic threat to the state. But the Maoist-inspired rebels have killed some 65 police and military officers in recent years.
The government's VRAEM eradication goal accounts for half of the 30,000 hectares of coca fields targeted for destruction in all of Peru this year.
"It's an ambitious goal but not if we consider that the VRAEM is where 54 percent of the coca in the country is," Masias said in an interview with Reuters.
Coca grows three times more densely in the VRAEM than in other parts of Peru.
The region is also home to the country's main natural gas reserves, which President Ollanta Humala has vowed to fully tap to meet soaring domestic demand for electricity.
An expansion of the country's main natural gas pipeline has been delayed in part because of security concerns after the Shining Path kidnapped - and later released unharmed - 36 pipeline workers in 2012.
Humala, a retired military officer who fought the Shining Path as a major in the early '90s, has vowed to stamp out what remains of the group by cutting off their main source of financing - drug trafficking.
At the start of 2013 the government also said it would begin eradication efforts in the VRAEM that year but ended up holding off.
Masias said it was never an explicit goal, and that the killing and capture of important Shining Path leaders last year now makes wresting control of the area easier.
GOING AFTER NARCO-PLANES
The government will also redouble efforts to intercept the growing number of small planes that fly cocaine from Peru to other countries, Masias said.
Peru has already been conducting "non-lethal" aerial interceptions together with its neighbor Brazil, considered the world's second-biggest buyer of the drug and the main destination for most Peruvian cocaine.
In the '90s, Peru - in coordination with the United States - shot down airplanes that flew through known drug routes without permission. But that tactic was abandoned after the military killed a U.S. missionary and her child in 2001 by attacking the aircraft they flew in.
The United States gave Peru $90 million last year for anti-drug operations and will contribute a similar amount this year and more in the future, Masias said.
In recent years, as eradication efforts in Colombia have cut down on coca farming, Peru has overtaken its neighbor as the world's biggest producer of coca and cocaine, according to the United Nations and Washington.
Coca covered 60,400 hectares of Peru in 2012 - 20 percent more than in neighboring Colombia, U.N. data shows.
But in 2013 Peru likely scaled back the amount of land dedicated to growing coca by 10 to 15 percent countrywide, Masias said. Expanding eradication efforts into the VRAEM will be key to continuing that trend, she said.
The more than 3 billion soles ($1.07 billion) put toward anti-poverty and alternative-crop programs in the VRAEM have not changed much on the coca front, Masias said.
"Not a single hectare of coca has been reduced as a result. In fact we're seeing more planted," she said. "Alternative development does not work if there is no eradication."
Masias declined to say when eradication efforts in the VRAEM would begin, but a source with the anti-narcotics police force told Reuters they would likely kick off in August.
The eradication push comes during a year of regional elections, which would make it "doubly difficult" as local leaders will appeal to voters by opposing the plan, she said.
The increased military presence in the VRAEM and planned construction of an airfield for anti-drug operations have already upset many locals who grow coca for traditional use, or who fear getting caught in the crossfire.
In October the military acknowledged it accidentally bombed a village while pursuing members of the Shining Path - killing one civilian and wounding four others in the process.
Masias said that regaining control of the region will inevitably mean putting lives at risk.
"Clearly we will have to be very careful, but when these operations are taken on you cannot back out," Masias said.
(Additional Reporting by Reuters TV; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)
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