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Peru rebel says Yank is innocent

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LIMA, Peru — A convicted guerrilla leader testified that American Lori Berenson, on trial on terrorism charges, knew nothing about his rebel group's plot to take over Peru's Congress.

Miguel Rincon testified Thursday during Berenson's civilian trial on charges of aiding the plan by the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA.

Rincon said the rebels deceived Berenson into renting a house where the raid was planned. He also alleged that the key prosecution witness fabricated his testimony against her.

"He's simply trying to implicate a person that he himself involved, to be able to unload his responsibilities on that person," Rincon said, referring to Pacifico Castrellon, a Panamanian who came with Berenson to Peru in 1994.

Castrellon testified last week that he and Berenson met in Ecuador with the MRTA's top guerrilla leader, Nestor Cerpa, who gave them cash to come to Peru.

Berenson, 31, a New Yorker, was sentenced to life in prison by a military judge in 1996 on a charge of treason. The sentence was overturned last year, and she won a civilian retrial.

Rincon said Thursday that he and Castrellon set up an elaborate scheme to trick Berenson into renting him part of the house.

He said she did not know his true identity and that more than a dozen other rebels did not move in until after she moved into a separate apartment. Three months later, police raided the house.

Rincon denied telling anti-terrorist police in 1995 that Berenson was "an international collaborating comrade" who offered cover for the safe house. He also denied signing statements that prosecutors say implicate Berenson.

Prosecutors said before Berenson's retrial began that Rincon had changed his story to cover up for her.

Meanwhile, imprisoned rebels from the larger Shining Path insurgency started a hunger strike Thursday demanding that their leader and his lover get new civilian trials like Berenson.

Abimael Guzman, founder of the Maoist insurgency, and Elena Iparraguirre, also one of his top lieutenants, are serving life sentences in adjacent cells in a maximum security naval prison in Lima's port of Callao.

Authorities said police Col. Pedro Fernandez, director of Lima's Castro Castro prison, was negotiating with an undetermined number of Shining Path rebels to end the hunger strike.

A jailed Shining Path rebel at Castro Castro said some 3,500 guerrillas in four different prisons were participating in the protest. Officials did not immediately respond to the claim.

No violence was reported.