President Jose Napoleon Duarte said today he was "perfectly satisfied" after his own investigation that four Dutch newsmen were killed by accident when a Salvadoran Army patrol clashed with guerrillas the journalists were accompanying.
The Salvadoran president defended the government's official report on the killing during an impromptu press conference at the Camino Real hotel, where television journalists, worried about a series of incidents in recent days with the security forces and the Army, told him they feared security forces were trying to intimidate journalists from moving freely around the country.
Duarte insisted the four Dutchmen had been killed when they were "moving in a guerrilla area with guerrilla protection" and after they met with an Army patrol. He promised that not only would he order the Army and security forces to respect the foreign press here but he would also conduct another investigation of the four Dutchmen's death in which journalists would be able to participate.
Insisting that the government "did not know they were there" in the area where the conflict occurred, Duarte asked, "If you want to go where we cannot protect you, how can we protect you?"
Duarte's press conference followed the release of the government's report on its hasty one-hour autopsy on the four dead Dutch journalists and an unidentified fifth dead man. Judicial officials said the autopsies showed no powder burns. Such burns would indicate the men were shot at short range, as those doubting the government's account have alleged.
The Dutch ambassador to Mexico is here making his own inquiry into the death of the television team--Jacobus Andries Koster, Hans Ter Lodewijk Laan, Johannes Willemsen and Jan Quiper.
The autopsy report said three of the four journalists had been shot in the head and the fourth had been shot in the heart and lungs. Some diplomats and colleagues of the dead journalists contend that the four may have been killed in cold blood after--not during--a confrontation between the Army and the guerrilla group that the journalists had joined only minutes earlier. Their stated purpose was to make a documentary on the antigovernment guerrilla movement in the Salvadoran countryside.
According to the autopsy report signed by Dr. Julio Alberto Chuvarria: Willemsen died of "multiple gunshot wounds that left his skull and brain completely destroyed;" Ter Laan was hit by two bullets in the chest that struck his heart and lungs; Koster died after being shot in the left eye and left leg, and Quiper died after being shot twice in the face. He also showed wounds across his abdomen that appeared to have been the result of shrapnel from a grenade.
The government said the four journalists were with guerrillas who, after spotting an Army patrol, opened fire, initiating a 40-minute exchange that resulted in eight dead, including the four journalists.
According to the government, three of the dead, apparently guerrillas, were buried at the scene. According to the government account, still unreleased in its entirety, the initial contact between the two forces was at 400 yards. Two of the unarmed journalists were alleged to have died in the initial firefight while two others ran down a ravine. They were cornered by the sergeant who led the patrol, the government reported, and he shot them with his M16 automatic rifle from a distance of 25 yards.
While the autopsy report said there were no powder burns on the bodies, one ballistics expert here, who did not want his name used, indicated that an M16 fired from more than three feet would not create powder burns on the body--only powder traces that would have to be detected by technical tests of the victims' clothing that apparently were not conducted by the Salvadoran government.
Various sources here, foreign and Salvadoran, have raised questions about the precision of the killing of the four journalists, noting that in armed combat it is rare that all who are attacked are killed outright. They also noted that there were no wounded combatants.
Reports that the journalists had been followed by a suspicious vehicle when they left the capital for their rendezvous--as well as the knowledge that the four had been interrogated earlier by security forces--have raised the possibility that the four might have been set up by the security forces to intimidate other journalists seeking contact with the antigovernment guerrillas.
Following the deaths of the four journalists, several television teams have had run-ins with security forces in the countryside.
Today, two American freelance television reporters, working with ABC, were stopped by armed men outside their hotel as they were leaving for the airport. The two said they were not threatened but their driver was questioned closely. They said they would take a later flight, accompanied to the airport by an escort from the U.S. Embassy.
It was against the background of such incidents that Duarte came to the hotel to offer assurances.
There are now more than 300 foreign journalists in El Salvador to cover the March 28 national elections and there has been deep resentment of the press expressed by extreme rightists, who have not been pleased by the press coverage of El Salvador.
The day the four journalists were killed, an extreme group, a self-styled "death squad," issued a list of 34 foreign and Salvadoran journalists--as well as the name of the U.S. public affairs officer at the embassy here--as targets for future assassinations. The four Dutch journalists were not on that list.
[In a separate development, United Press International quoted court sources as saying that 12 civilian militiamen had been arrested for the mass hanging and machete slayings of 19 civilians, including 12 children, on March 4. They said 18 others, including two police officers, were being sought.]