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Salvadoran Experts Seeking 400 Bodies At Reputed Massacre Site

May 20, 1993 GMT

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) _ Forensic experts began digging in northern El Salvador on Wednesday for the bodies of hundreds of people believed massacred by army troops at the height of the civil war.

Juan Mateu Llort, director of the government’s Legal Medicine Institute, said he had teams digging near the small town of Las Aradas for as many as 400 bodies buried in mass graves there.

″What we are looking for is proof″ of a massacre, Llort told reporters.

The Chalatenango province town, 55 miles north of San Salvador near the Honduran border, was one of the areas hardest hit during the 12-year war against leftist guerrillas that ended in 1992.

Survivors say the victims, most of them women and children trying to flee an army operation into neighboring Honduras, were cornered by soldiers from both countries and shot to death on May 14, 1980.

People there refer to it as the ″Rio Sumpul Massacre″ after the river bordering Honduras where survivors say they were trapped between fire from Salvadoran and Honduran army troops.

The Armed Forces of Honduras issued a statement in Tegucigalpa on Wednesday denying it blocked or fired on the fleeing peasants. ″That is an utterly baseless lie,″ said Lt. Col. Napoleon Santos, a Honduran military spokesman.

The exhumations were ordered by a Salvadoran judge investigating the war’s atrocities.

The Sumpul investigation is the latest in a series of judicial probes into human rights abuses that are part of a peace agreement signed by the leftist rebels and President Alfredo Cristiani’s conservative government.

Forensic teams recently recovered the bodies of 177 people slain by Salvadoran army troops near the town of El Mozote, in the northeastern province of Morazan.

Residents say around 1,000 people were believed to have been massacred there in 1981.

Another 35 bodies were dug up in the village of Nueva Trinidad, also in Chalatenango, where survivors say the rebels massacred 200 peasants.

More than 75,000 people have been killed in the war, fought by the leftist rebels against a succession of U.S.-backed governments. Many of them were civilians suspected of leftist sympathies and slain by troops or rightist paramilitary death squads.

A U.N.-appointed commission charged in a wide-ranging report in March that army soldiers and paramilitary groups ″deliberately killed no less than 300 non-combatants″ at Rio Sumpul.

″The massacre was made possible as a result of cooperation by the Honduran armed forces, which blocked the passage of the Salvadorans″ to the other side of the border, the report said.

Investigators have said the killing spree lasted nine hours with infantry, heavy artillery and helicopters attacking the peasants as they tried to flee across the river from an area held by leftist rebels.

″We are searching for about 400 sets of remains, left in two common graves,″ Llort said, adding that the search was being conducted on the basis of testimony by survivors.

One peasant identified only as Pancho told a local television station the peasants were hunted down like animals.

″I watched as bodies fell. Everyone was running toward the river, and Salvadoran as well as Honduran troops were firing indiscriminately,″ he said.

″People were hiding behind trees, in the underbrush, but the bullets got them. They fell dead in the river and along the banks.″

Francisca Alvarenga, another peasant, said she escaped by floating and stumbling down the river ″with a baby girl in my arms.″

The survivors said they feared many bodies would not be found, swept away by the river along with evidence dating back 13 years.

But a Jesuit priest, Jon Cortina, said he was confident the truth would be borne out by the excavations after years of cover-up by a succession of rightist, military-backed governments.

″The evidence will show this wasn’t a lie,″ he said.