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Salvador army command rejects murder allegation

By RINA GUADALUPE SERRANO

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- The military Tuesday rejected as 'irresponsible and tendentious' an army colonel's assertion that six Jesuit priests were killed on orders from high up in the military.

Nine soldiers, including army Col. Guillermo Benavides, have been arrested in the killings, which witnesses said were committed by uniformed gunmen at San Salvador's Central American University, just blocks from army headquarters.

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Col. Sigifredo Ochoa, a high-ranking member of the ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance who is not on active duty, told CBS News last week that Benavides was incapable of ordering an assassination of that nature and was merely 'obeying orders.'

'I am saying publicly what the people are saying in a low voice,' Ochoa said after the interview.

The armed forces issued a statement Tuesday dismissing Ochoa's comments as 'irresponsible and tendentious ... with the aim of creating confusion and distrust in the public eye by involving members of the high command in the murders.'

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'We emphatically and categorically reject the recent statements made by Col. Sigifredo Ochoa that were aired in the local and foreign media,' it said.

The six Jesuit priests -- founders of the university who were among El Salvador's leading intellectuals -- were killed along with their housekeeper and her daughter on Nov. 16 at the height of a major rebel offensive.

The armed forces urged Ochoa to give any information he had to presiding Judge Ricardo Zamora. Under Salvadoran law, prosecution evidence in any case is gathered by the judge during a pretrial investigation.

The judge decides whether the evidence warrants a formal trial.

This process has led to charges that El Salvador's judiciary, which is controlled by the ruling ARENA party, has too much influence over the courts.

In Washington Monday, a panel of House Democrats issued a report criticizing the slow process and saying the killings were part of a continuing pattern of human rights abuses by the Salvadoran military.

'We believe that the murder of the Jesuits grew out of an attitude of suspicion and anger towards activist segments of the church that remains all too widespread within the armed forces,' said the report by a 19-member task force named by House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash.

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'The murders of the Jesuits reflect problems within the Salvadoran armed forces that go far beyond the actions of a particular unit on a particular night,' it said.

The panel chairman, Rep. Joseph Moakley, D-Mass., said the findings would strengthen moves to slash U.S. military assistance to El Salvador or to link aid to the government's human rights performance.

Moakley said he believes Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani 'truly wants to get to the bottom of this' but said 'there is question' about how much power Cristiani has to act against the military.

The Salvadoran high command has denied ordering or covering up the killings.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee voted Thursday to halve U.S. military aid to El Salvador for the rest of the 1990 fiscal year and for all of 1991 -- a reduction of about $60 million over the two years. Proposals to cut or eliminate military aid also have been made in the Senate.

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