Death squads in El Salvador on prowl again

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The Independent Online
THE TORTURE and killing of a member of El Salvador's left-wing political party, the former guerrilla group FMLN, has threatened the country's fragile peace accords and raised fears of renewed civil war.

The former guerrilla Manuel de Jesus Acevedo was shot in the back of the head, with his hands bound behind his back, the hallmark of right-wing 'death squads' widely believed to have links with the military. His body was found in the capital, San Salvador, on Monday night, hours after the UN Deputy Secretary-General, Marrack Goulding, arrived in the city to investigate a string of earlier assassinations. UN observers say torture and death-squad killings have resumed since the January 1992 peace accords.

A senior US State Department official, Alexander Watson, was due in San Salvador as fears grew that the peace accords, ending a 12-year war that claimed more than 70,000 lives, could fall apart. Mr Watson's visit comes amid a furore in Washington over newly released US documents suggesting that Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush both knew more about Salvadorean death squads in the Eighties than they ever admitted.

Mr Acevedo was the third FMLN member murdered in two weeks and the 25th since the war ended. One recent victim was gunned down as he held his daughter's hand outside a daycare centre.

A member of the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) of President Alfredo Cristiani was shot dead this month. Although the FMLN leadership has disavowed violence, that killing may have been the work of breakaway FMLN militants who have pledged an 'armed campaign' against the death squads. The militants said wealthy families they accuse of 'sponsoring' the death squads would become 'military objectives', raising fears that the violence could escalate and jeopardise general elections due next March, when the FMLN is to run as a political party for the first time.

The FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) laid down its arms at the end of last year under the UN-brokered peace accords. When a large arms cache was uncovered in Nicaragua this year, the group admitted ownership, but said the weapons had been stored only to protect its leaders. The FMLN leader, Joaquin Villalobos, described the situation in the country as 'critical', warned that the peace deals were in jeopardy and accused right-wing businessmen of ordering the latest assassinations. They wanted to create a new crisis, prevent an FMLN political victory and regain the influence they wielded before the war ended, he said.

Mr Goulding, who described the recent killings as 'alarming', is talking to both the FMLN and Mr Cristiani, notably on the government's apparent failure to heed the recommendations of a 'Truth Commission' to oust human rights violators from the army or civilian public bodies.

In Washington, House representatives are investigating more than 12,000 documents on El Salvador released at the weekend by the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA.

The New York Times, which has published extracts from the documents, said they showed 'powerful evidence' that both the Reagan and Bush administrations had details of death squad killings by right-wing leaders during the Eighties 'but continued to work with them none the less'.