TINGO MARIA, Peru (AP) _ Night was falling as heavily armed Shining Path guerrillas entered the jungle settlement of Ramal de Aspuzana, on the banks of the rain-swollen Huallaga River 45 miles north of here.

They came with a message: Any villager who dared vote in April 9 elections would be killed. They looted the village health post for medical supplies. Then they withdrew.

``It was a column of 30 men, also boys and girls only l0 or 12 years old,'' said Watson Alegria, Ramal's mayor. ``They were looking for the authorities, but we hid. Luckily, they didn't find us.''

Sendero Luminoso, once the most feared rebel group in South America, has more life left in it than the government of President Alberto Fujimori would like to admit.

The Maoist rebels have killed dozens of people in the Upper Huallaga valley, 200 miles northeast of Lima, since the government removed many troops from the area to fight a border war with Ecuador that began in late January.

The valley, on the eastern slopes of the Andes, has long been a rebel stronghold. Ramal de Aspuzana was seized by rebels March 4, less than two weeks after the army abandoned a post there.

``Sendero always has had a strong presence here even before the conflict with Ecuador,'' said Eladio Arcayo, a radio newsman in Tingo Maria, the largest town in the valley. ``It wasn't like President Fujimori said _ that subversion had been defeated, that Sendero was in its death throes.''

Fujimori, who is running for re-election, has vowed to wipe out the Shining Path by July 28, the end of his first term. On Tuesday, authorities paraded Margie Clavo Peralta, said to be in the Shining Path command. She was captured March 17 with 19 other members of the group in Huancayo, a town east of Lima.

Sendero's founder and chieftain, Abimael Guzman, was captured in September 1992 in a Lima safe-house. The government hoped his arrest would be a death blow to the rebels.

But Guzman's third-in-command, Oscar Ramirez Durand, known to his followers as ``Comrade Feliciano,'' took control of the insurgency and continues to fight on with scattered bands of die-hard rebels.

Nearly 30,000 Peruvians have been killed since the Shining Path took up arms in 1980, although the death toll has declined dramatically from 3,101 in 1992 to 646 last year.

Most experts say the Shining Path poses no threat to the government or to the April 9 balloting for president and a new congress.

But those experts live in Lima, the capital, where the Shining Path has been all but dismantled.

``What worries me are the isolated rural areas where the state is not present, where the armed forces and the police are not present. In those places Sendero may be able to block the elections with threats,'' said David Montoya, an analyst for DESCO, a Lima think-tank.

With at least 400 soldiers removed from the Upper Huallaga valley, the Shining Path has been quick to reassert its domination of the area.

Since mid-February the insurgents have killed nearly 50 people, including local officials, members of village self-defense groups and former rebel supporters who surrendered and received amnesty.

In Tingo Maria, a town of 35,000 people, and outlying villages, fear is palpable.

The parish priest in Tingo Maria, a French-Canadian, was so frightened that he refused to speak with a journalist or give his name.

When the army shut its post at Bella, a village three miles outside town, 300 families fled to Tingo Maria. The army was forced to reopen the post after two days.

Inhabitants of other villages in a 10-mile radius work their small farms during the day but come into Tingo Maria at night to sleep.

``You can't travel the highway after 5 in the afternoon because you run the risk that they might come out on the road and grab you,'' said Felipe Paucar, a rural development official.

For the first time in months Shining Path slogans and the hammer and sickle, the movement's symbol, have begun appearing on houses in outlying villages, painted in blood red. Even the paved roads leading out of town are painted with warnings not to vote.

In Victoria, 13 miles east of Tingo Maria, the hamlet's half dozen buildings and concrete-block schoolhouse are splashed with painted slogans: ``Elections, No! People's War, Yes! Long Live the Armed Struggle! Long Live the Communist Party!''

The rebels came at 2 a.m. to paint the houses. As the insurgents were leaving, they shouted they would ``cut off the head'' of anyone who dared to paint over the slogans.