U.N. probe links army to killings in El Salvador

March 15, 1993|By Tim Golden | Tim Golden,New York Times News Service

UNITED NATIONS -- A United Nations-sponsored investigation into the most notorious violence of El Salvador's civil war has found active and retired military officers responsible for the killings of thousands of civilians, including the archbishop of San Salvador, people who have seen the report said yesterday night.

They said the report names the Salvadoran defense minister, Gen. Rene Emilio Ponce, who offered his resignation Friday, as one of a group of senior officers who ordered the killing of six Jesuit priests in 1989.

The report also says that a former defense minister, Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, helped to cover up the 1980 murders of four American churchwomen by National Guard troops under his command, people familiar with the investigation said.

President Alfredo Cristiani called yesterday for an "immediate, general and absolute amnesty" for all military chiefs, rebel leaders and civilians named in the U.N. report, Reuters reported.

"This is the time to pardon," Mr. Cristiani said in a televised address soon after his government received a copy of the U.N.-appointed report on the worst atrocities of the 12-year war.

People who have seen the report said it blames leaders of the rebel Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front for a series of political assassinations. Those include the killings of a conservative university professor and of more than two dozen mayors from 1985 to 1988.

The report, which was given to the government and representatives of the former rebels this evening and is to be made public today, was prepared after eight months of investigation by international human rights experts working under a three-member panel called the Commission on the Truth.

Although the government and rebels agreed to the investigation under the peace settlement they signed in January 1992, Mr. Cristiani has lobbied intensely to delay or limit its disclosures. He has argued that the report could destabilize the country just three months after the war was brought to a formal end.

The members of the commission have argued that without a full account of the war's worst horrors, the country's democracy can never be stabilized.

The report's impending release appears to have prompted General Ponce to offer his resignation Friday. The defense minister was one of 16 officers whom Mr. Cristiani, despite urging by the U.N. secretary-general, refused to purge from the armed forces with 87 others as called for under the peace accords.

People who have seen the report said it details how at a meeting at the armed forces' headquarters on Nov. 15, 1989, four days after rebel troops began a major offensive in San Salvador, General Ponce presided over a meeting as the killings of the Jesuits were planned.

These people, who discussed the investigation on condition of anonymity, were representatives of institutions not directly involved in El Salvador's civil conflict.

According to one person who read to a reporter from a nearly final draft of the report, it cites "substantial proof" that General Ponce and four other officers plotted to kill the liberal rector of the Central American University in San Salvador, the Jesuit priest Ignacio Ellacuria, "without leaving witnesses."

During the civil war, the United States supplied El Salvador with more than $6 billion in aid. The aid continued despite frequent accusations by human rights groups and others that the Salvadoran military, many of whose officers were trained in the United States or by U.S. officers in El Salvador, was committing the kinds of abuses described in the report, including the slaying of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero in 1980.

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