SITIO DEL NINO, El Salvador -- President Alfredo Cristiani formally demobilized an elite army unit Tuesday that is blamed for two of the most notorious massacres of the country's 12-year civil war, calling the soldiers 'heroes of the fatherland' as low-flying jets screamed overhead in salute.
The demobilization of the 1,261-strong Atlacatl Immediate Reaction Battalion, considered the Salvadoran military's top combat unit by U.S. military advisers who designed and trained the force, was being carried out as part of the country's peace process.
The Atlacatl battalion is best remembered by Salvadorans for its alleged involvement in the 1981 massacre of hundreds of civilians around the village of El Mozote and the 1989 murders of six prominent Jesuit priests in the capital.
Cristiani, speaking at a parade ground ceremony to formally dissolve the battalion, told the soldiers, 'You will remain in the hearts of the Salvadoran people as heros of the fatherland.' His speech was twice drowned out by the sound of low-flying military jets that screamed overhead.
Despite his remarks, other people were glad to see the military battalion be demobilized. It was one of five such counter-insurgency units being dissolved as part of the U.N.-mediated settlement of the civil war.
'The Atlacatl battalion was a symbol of the brutality of the war,' said Jose Maria Tojeira, head of the Jesuit order in Central America. 'It has committed crimes, it has killed and repressed civilians. It is fitting that this battalion disappear.'
The peace accord signed last January includes broad reforms of the small Central American nation's democratic institutions and a radical restructuring of the armed forces.
In exchange for these reforms, the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or known by the Spanish-language acronym FMLN, agreed to destroy its weapons and transform its armed insurgency into a political party.
The disarming of a final contigent of rebel forces is scheduled to be completed by Dec. 15, marking a formal end to the conflict in which some 75,000 people -- more than 1 percent of the population -- were killed.
Evidence is now mounting that the Atlacatl battalion systematically massacred up to 1,000 men, women and children at the village of El Mozote more than a decade ago.
Salvadoran officials and foreign experts recently began investigating the atrocity. An initial excavation of the village's small convent uncovered the remains of at least 136 children, six women and one elderly man.
'There is abundant evidence that the cause of death, where it can be discerned, is due to gunshot wounds,' said Clyde Snow, a world renowned forensic anthropologist from Texas.
'Those kids didn't die in a measles epidemic,' said Robert Kirschner, a medical examiner from Cook County, Illinois, who has also worked on the case. 'They were murdered. This was a mass murder of children,'
The few surviving witnesses said members of the Atlacatl battalion carried out the massacre during an operation directed against guerrillas who had established a stronghold in the area.
The Salvadoran government has always denied the massacre took place and U.S. officials questioned the accuracy of news reports about the incident at the time.
Investigators expect the number of bodies discovered to rise as they excavate other sites in El Mozote and four surrounding villages also targeted by the army operation.
The Atlacatl battalion's commando unit is also accused of murdering six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter in a night raid on the priests' home in San Salvador in 1989.
A colonel charged with ordering the mission and one lieutenant were later convicted of murder based on testimony from members of the commando unit who said they were sent to eliminate the priests and ordered to leave no witnesses.
Apart from the dismantling of counter-insurgency battalions, the armed forces are also being stripped of police duties they exercised during the war and having their troop numbers cut in half, to about 32, 000 members.