The field commander whose American-trained battalion spearheaded the largest single "cleanup" operation of the Salvadoran civil war said today that an unspecified number of women and children were among the 135 "subversives" the government claims its troops killed in a 10-day push through eastern Chalatenango department.
As many as 4,000 government troops were involved in the two-phase sweep, which was in part a test of the counterinsurgency tactics advocated by the United States and of the three battalions trained by the American military since last year, including a battalion that recently returned from Ft. Bragg, N.C. Advocates of the U.S. program, which emphasizes operations by small units, contend that it will help curb civilian casualties.
The guerrillas have charged over the clandestine Radio Venceremos that as many as 600 civilians living in territory the rebels dominated to the north and east of the mountainous province were massacred in the operation and that Honduran troops were directly involved in the fighting.
In response to questioning at a press conference this morning, Lt. Col. Domingo Monterrosa, whose Atlacatl Battalion was trained by U.S. Special Forces last year, said that perhaps 95 percent of the dead were identifiable as combatants by their uniforms or equipment.
But Monterrosa first noted in his general explanation of the operation that during the destruction of 12 guerrilla camps, "It is natural that in these subversive redoubts the armed men are not there alone."
"That is to say," Monterrosa continued, "they need their 'masses'--people, women, old people, or children, including the children who are messengers, or the wives, and they are all mixed up with the subversives themselves, with the armed ones. So in the clashes and the distinct operations that we carried out about here," he said, pointing to a topographic map, "it's natural that there were a series of people killed, some without weapons, including some women, and I understand some children, in the crossfire between them and us."
While the operation was presented as a successful "cleanup," Monterrosa estimated that there were about 800 armed guerrilla combatants in the area when the operation began, of whom the vast majority appear to have escaped either into Honduras or joined refugees remaining in El Salvador after "hiding their rifles."
Monterrosa said that the operation was "coordinated" with Honduran troops, who "took care" of their border, but that there were no cross-border operations as such.