Four Dutch journalists seeking to interview antigovernment guerrillas in Chalatenango Province north of here were shot to death Wednesday in a firefight between Army troops and guerrillas, the Salvadoran government said tonight.
More than 24 hours after the incident, the armed forces and presidency declared in a joint statement that the journalists had been killed after a military patrol surprised a column of guerrillas. The statement said there was a 40-minute firefight after the patrol was fired upon by the guerrillas, who then fled, leaving behind eight bodies--including the four Dutch journalists and a fifth foreigner, described by the statement as apparently a journalist or a mercenary.
The four Dutchmen--Jacobus Andries (Koos) Koster, Hans Ter Lan, Johannes (Joop) Willemsen and Jan Quiper--were last seen at about 5 p.m. Wednesday when a colleague dropped them off at a prearranged meeting point several miles east of the Chalatenango town of El Paraiso, headquarters for a new Salvadoran Army battalion currently being trained by U.S. Special Forces advisers. The journalists were on assignment for a group of three Dutch television and radio stations.
Friends of the four dead journalists expressed fears that they may have been under government surveillance when they left to meet the guerrillas, and may have been followed to the rendezvous.
Bodies of the four were identified by colleagues tonight after the Army brought the caskets to the morgue here. A Dutch journalist who viewed the bodies said they showed evidence of multiple gunshot wounds at close range.
The journalist, who preferred that his name not be used, said that two of his colleagues' heads had been disfiguered and a third had half his head blown away. He said all showed signs of having been fired on at close range in the chest, arms and legs. The Dutch consul later had the bodies moved to a funeral home.
The official statement said the other three killed in the fight were guerrillas. Recovered along with the bodies, the Army said, were a Belgian-make FAL rifle, a U.S.-made M16 and a Beretta pistol. The statement, which said the government "deeply lamented" the incident, concluded with a warning to journalists that "they not expose themselves imprudently while traveling to areas where there might be danger from the activities of subversives that are sponsored by international communism in the country."
Colleagues of the slain journalists based their fears that the men might have been under surveillance on an incident last week in which the four had been interrogated for five hours by Col. Francisco Moran, commander of the Salvadoran Treasury Police, after Koster's name, hotel and room number were allegedly found in the pocket of a guerrilla killed during a clash in Usulutan east of here. Friends of the newsmen said that Koster's three colleagues insisted on accompanying him to the interrogation.
The Treasury Police have been linked by the U.S. State Department to past killings of civilians. Friends of the journalists also suggested that the four may have been followed because they were staying at the Hotel Alameda, which is thought to be under close government surveillance because it has served as a contact point between journalists and guerrilla representatives.
An acquaintance of the dead journalists said the four, as well as others staying at the Alameda, had received numerous death threats in person and by telephone in the past week.
Today, after a Dutch colleague of the four was tipped off about the incident by a telephone call Wednesday night from a U.S. Embassy source, journalists rushed to where the four were last seen and found bloodied clothing identified by one of their friends as what the dead men were last seen wearing. The clothing, which was riddled with bullets, had apparently been ripped off the bodies. Reporters also found several dozen spent cartridges from M16 automatic rifles, a weapon used by both guerrillas and the Army.
Maria Dolores Portillo, a woman living in the nearby hamlet of Santa Rita, told enquiring journalists today that she had heard gunfire lasting from 20 to 30 minutes shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday from the area where the journalists were last seen. This coincided very closely with the time the group was dropped off.
Other campesinos, or peasants, spoke today of hearing about eight bodies being found where the bloodied clothing was discovered, but none had actually seen any corpses themselves.
The U.S. Embassy in San Salvador dispatched two of its staff members to the scene of the killing to conduct an investigation, a U.S. Embassy source said.
Salvadoran Foreign Minister Fidel Chavez Mena initially confirmed to the Dutch ambassador in Mexico City that the men had been killed but gave no details on how they died.
In Washington, a State Department statement said the four "were killed in a battle between guerrillas and Salvadoran armed forces...The Salvadoran government has already initiated its own investigation...We regard it as a tragedy when the press, in pursuit of its profession, pays such a price."
The deaths of the four Dutchmen brought to seven the number of foreign journalists killed in El Salvador in just a little over a year. Two others, including American John Sullivan, are missing. The latest killings were reported as a death list was issued by a mysterious self-styled "death squad" threatening the lives of 33 foreign and Salvadoran journalists as well as Howard Lane, the public affairs officer of the U.S. Embassy here.
The death list, signed by a group calling itself the El Salvador Anticommunist Alliance, singled out representatives from The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Miami Herald, Voice of America, Newsweek, NBC, UPI and AP, among others.
There has been widespread resentment among some Salvadoran conservatives over press coverage of the El Salvador crisis during the past two years. The critics have complained that journalists have been duped by the guerrillas into falsely reporting that government forces have carried out massacres.
The list of threatened journalists included Washington Post Foreign Editor Karen DeYoung and the Post's Central American correspondent Chris Dickey, whose name on the list was misspelled as Christ Dickinson. Alma Guillermoprieto, who has also reported in the area for The Washington Post as well as the Manchester Guardian, was also named, together with correspondents Alan Riding and Raymond Bonner of The New York Times.