BUENOS AIRES, JULY 2 -- Grave robbers have cut the hands off the embalmed body of Argentine president Juan Peron 13 years after his death and are demanding an $8 million ransom for their return, a judge said today.

Judge Jaime Far Suau searched for five hours in Peron's tomb at the Chacarita cemetery here on a request from the acting president of the Peronist party, Vicente Saadi, who received a ransom note yesterday.

Far Suau said a military saber that had rested on the cover of Peron's coffin also was missing. The coffin had a 375-pound glass cover with 12 triple-combination locks, he said. The glass had been drilled through.

Peronist leader Antonio Cafiero said of the robbery, "It's the work of psychopaths." However, a strong cultural facet in Argentina is a fascination with death. This trait has repeatedly played a political role in the country.

Peron died July 1, 1974, in his third term as president. His body was shipped to Moscow for embalming and months later laid to rest here. Over the years since his first presidential term in 1945 he had become the nation's leading political figure even though he was forced to live in exile for almost two decades.

His second wife and leading political companion during his first presidential term, Eva Peron, died in 1952. Her expertly embalmed body was stolen from the grand hall of the General Confederation of Labor after the military overthrew Peron in 1955, and it was buried anonymously in Italy. Three coffins were shipped to Europe in an elaborate attempt to prevent recovery of the corpse by Peronists.

The military returned the cadaver to Peron in Madrid in the early 1970s -- his condition for opening talks that eventually led to a reconciliation. A dead general's body was stolen at one stage of the bargaining. Eva Peron's coffin remained in the Madrid house with Peron and his third wife -- and eventual successor -- Isabel, until all three were allowed to come home. Eva Peron's body was buried in a vault-like tomb at the Recoleta cemetery.

Interior Minister Antonio Troccoli denied that President Raul Alfonsin's government would declare a state of siege or suspend Sept. 6 legislative elections as a result of the grave robbery.

A relative of Peron told police Monday that the saber, a military hat and an Argentine banner that had covered Peron's coffin were missing. The following day several Peronist leaders reported receiving notes demanding an $8 million ransom for the hands.

But Far Suau said the search of the tomb revealed that the banner and Peron's military hat were inside the coffin. The saber and the hands, however, were missing. The judge said the work seemed to be that of professionals.

A source close to the investigation told the Noticias Argentinas news agency that Peron's body appeared to be "in good condition."

The discovery came one day after the 13th anniversary of his death, marked every year with speeches and memorial services. Police Chief Juan Pirker said, "We are on the limits of savagery."