SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- Authorities Tuesday began exhuming the remains of hundreds of people thought to have been killed in an army massacre on the banks of the Sumpul river 13 years ago.
Representatives of the Institute of Legal Medicine and the attorney general's office flew by helicopter to the remote site in northern Chalatenango province to begin digging for remains.
Institute director Juan Mateo Llort said before departing that the exhumation team expects to find about 400 bodies in two separate mass grave sites that were identified by local residents.
The operation is the third major exhumation to be undertaken since fighting in El Salvador's 12-year civil war ended with a United Nations- brokered political settlement more than a year ago.
The conflict killed about 75,000 people, and human rights organizations say most of the victims were civilians either caught in crossfire or killed by the army and right-wing death squads.
A U.N.-backed Truth Commission that investigated the worst abuses of the war concluded that Salvadoran government forces aided by Honduran troops killed at least 300 unarmed civilians along the banks of the Sumpul river on May 14, 1980. The river marks the border between Honduras and El Salvador.
Witnesses say Salvadoran troops flushed the occupants out of several villages in the area and chased them to the river where their passage was blocked by awaiting Honduran troops. Estimates of the number of men, women and children killed in the ensuing massacre range from 300 to 600.
Salvadoran and Honduran officials have consistently denied that the massacre took place, and Roman Catholic Church officials said the exhumation would verify the testimony of hundreds of people who claim to have survived the slaughter.
'This is one of the best-documented cases and there has even been a judgment by the Truth Commission, but we will follow the case very closely because there is still a lot of truth that has not surfaced,' San Salvador Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez said this week.
'The earth still guards many secrets and she will continue to give them up, little by little,' Rosa Chavez said.
A partial exhumation last year of a massacre site at the village of El Mozote in a former war zone of northeastern El Salvador uncovered the remains of more than 100 children who had been executed, crammed into a one-room adobe building and burned.
The Truth Commission found enough evidence to pin the 1981 mass murder on members of a Salvadoran counterinsurgency battalion trained by U.S. military advisers.
A second exhumation carried out in April uncovered evidence that seeral civilians were killed during a 1982 rebel attack on government troops stationed in the northern town of Nueva Trinidad.