Latin America & Caribbean

Nine El Salvador ex-soldiers held over Jesuit killings

Special Security Unit of the Salvadoran Army in San Salvador
Image caption The nine are being held at the Special Security Unit of the Salvadoran Army in San Salvador

Nine former Salvadoran soldiers have turned themselves in to face charges that they shot dead six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter during El Salvador's civil war.

They had been indicted in Spain under its universal jurisdiction law, which holds that some crimes are so grave that they can be tried anywhere.

The killing became one of the most infamous of El Salvador's civil war.

El Salvador will have to decide whether to extradite the nine to Spain.

The men handed themselves in at a military base after reportedly hearing that Salvadoran police were going to detain them under an international arrest order issued by Interpol.

A total of 20 former soldiers, including two former defence ministers, were indicted by the Spanish court.

'Infamous crime'

The man accused of ordering the killings, Gen Rene Emilio Ponce, died in May. Ten other suspects remain at large.

Among those who handed themselves in is Gen Rafael Humberto Larios.

Gen Larios was the minister of defence at the time of the shooting and was present at the meeting where Ponce ordered the killing, according to a report by a United Nations Truth Commission who investigated the killings.

The 1989 murders of the priests, five of whom were Spanish, their housekeeper and her daughter, caused widespread shock and revulsion.

The security forces suspected the priests, who worked at the Central American University, of sympathising with left-wing rebels of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

The Spanish judge who issued the indictment said the priests had been targeted because they had pushed for negotiations between the Salvadoran government and the rebels.

"That was the fundamental motive for the killing," Judge Eloy Velasco said.

Around 70,000 people were killed during the 12-year civil war before a 1992 United Nations-brokered agreement brought peace to the country.

Human rights groups have welcomed the move by the nine former military men but say they hold out little hope that the Salvadoran Supreme Court will extradite them to Spain.

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