Four soldiers have been arrested and a magistrate has called for an investigation of four senior police officials in an alleged cover-up of civilian deaths during last year's Army crackdown against dissidents in the southern Matabeleland region.

The arrests are believed to be among the first of soldiers from the elite 5th Brigade for action taken during last year's harsh counterinsurgency campaign during which hundreds of civilians reportedly were killed.

The government repeatedly has denied charges that soldiers committed atrocities against civilians during the crackdown. A government panel formed 14 months ago to probe the allegation has yet to produce a finding.

A prosecutor in Bulawayo, in Matabeleland, last night ordered the four soldiers held for two weeks while he determines whether to charge them with murder in the deaths of four persons in February 1983 at the peak of the antidissident campaign. The soldiers were arrested after testimony in a public inquest this week contradicted their account of the deaths.

Among the four victims were a uniformed Army officer from a different military unit and his wife, who were driving on the main highway from Victoria Falls to Bulawayo when they were stopped by the soldiers. The soldiers originally told an Army board of inquiry that the four died accidentally when caught in cross fire between the Army and armed dissidents. The four were buried in shallow graves near the village of Lupane, 100 miles north of Bulawayo.

"Caught in a crossfire" has been the common explanation by Army officers and government officials to justify civilian deaths during last year's crackdown and during a second antidissident campaign in the region earlier this year.

In testifying last week, the soldiers changed their story to claim the victims had been shot while trying to escape after admitting aiding dissidents. But an examination of the exhumed bodies showed three of the four died of bayonet wounds, and a Lupane police officer testified that medical records stating the true cause of death had been removed from police files.

The inquest, which concluded today, also heard evidence that the victims' hands had been tied behind their backs before they were killed.

A local magistrate, George Romilly, who attempted to conduct an investigation last year into the four deaths, told the inquest he had been warned by his superiors not to pursue the matter and had been threatened with arrest by a senior Bulawayo police official who accused him of subversion.

Presiding Magistrate Gordon Geddes, who conducted this week's inquest, told four senior police officials who appeared at the hearing that he doubted their testimony. He said at the conclusion of the hearings today that he would recommend to the state attorney general's office that the officials be investigated for participating in a cover-up of the deaths and of a separate incident in which two other civilians were killed.

Geddes also praised fellow magistrate Romilly, saying that without his perseverance the matter might have died last year without an investigation, as did many similar incidents.