WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Alexander Haig said Wednesday that four American Catholic missionaries killed in El Salvador may have been shot in an exchange of gunfire as their vehicle tried to run a military roadblock.
Haig's statement came as the FBI rejected charges that the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government is not cooperating in the investigation of the 1980 killings of the three nuns and one lay woman.
'Let me assure you that the dialogue between the Salvadoran government and the FBI with respect to this heinous crime -- and I use that term without reservations -- is continuing,' Haig told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
'It is a complex issue,' he said. 'The facts on this are not clear enough for anyone to draw up a definitive conclusion.'
'I would like to suggest to you that some of these investigations would lead one to believe that perhaps the vehicle (in which the nuns were riding) may have run a roadblock or may have been perceived to be doing that, and that there was an exchange of fire in which perhaps those who caused the casualties sought to cover it up.'
Rep. Richard Ottinger, D-N.Y, whose district includes the Maryknoll order, to which two of the slain nuns belonged, issued a statement Wednesday night criticizing Haig's remarks.
'If Secretary Haig has hard information, he should release it immediately. Otherwise he is engaging in shocking and thoughtless speculation which can only encourage terrorism and endanger American lives in El Salvador and around the world,' Ottinger said.
In Ossining, N.Y., Sister Martha Bourne, a spokeswoman for the Maryknoll sisters, said the community has not heard anything from their own sources in El Salvador that would indicate the nuns were running a roadblock. 'I can't imagine anybody in their right mind would have tried to do that,' she said.
The women were killed Dec. 2 while on their way to El Salvador's capital of San Salvador from the international airport, some 30 miles away, where they had arrived from Nicaragua.
FBI agent Francis Mullen told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, meanwhile, the bureau is 'completely satisfied' with cooperation from theSalvadoran government.
He said the FBI is now reviewing evidence and fingerprints it has received from El Salvador. He acknowleged that 'some witnesses have been reluctant to cooperate ... but at this time, we do not know who committed the murders.'
Former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador Robert White, who was fired by Haig from the foreign service, has accused the State Department of a 'cover-up' in the investigation, which he has said was hampered by the Salvadoran authorities.