More than 230 U.S. citizens were flown out of embattled El Salvador today in the first mass evacuation of Americans in a decade of war.
The Americans--wives and children of diplomats and contract employees--left aboard a chartered Continental Airlines airbus at 12:25 p.m. (10:25 a.m. PST) for Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington.
The Americans were taken from the U.S. Embassy to the international airport 20 miles away during a six-hour unilateral truce declared by the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).
U.S. Embassy spokesman Barry Jacobs said about 300 Americans were expected to leave today, with some apparently traveling aboard commercial flights. Earlier, Jacobs said the U.S. government had chartered two planes, with one of them flying to Miami. Embassy officials later said they were unsure there would be a Miami flight.
The Americans’ departure was widely seen by Salvadorans and non-U.S. diplomats as a major propaganda victory for the FMLN and a blow to the credibility of the U.S.-backed government of President Alfredo Cristiani.
Since the FMLN guerrillas launched their biggest offensive in the decade-old war Nov. 11, the Cristiani government repeatedly announced it had broken the backbone of the insurgent forces and reasserted control in the capital.
But after a lull of several days, leftist guerrillas slipped back into the most affluent districts of the Salvadoran capital Wednesday, engaged government troops in fierce combat, and prompted the U.S. Embassy to arrange for the departure of dependents.
In contrast to statements from embassy officials that the departure was voluntary, many of those affected appeared to have been instructed to leave.
“The embassy called us and said we have to go. . . . We were ordered to report to the embassy with one overnight bag,” one man told Reuters. He identified himself as a contract worker linked to the embassy but declined to give his name.
Most of the evacuated Americans lived in the districts of Escalon, San Benito and Maquilishuat, favorite areas for foreigners and the Salvadoran upper class.
After heavy fighting Wednesday, the bulk of the guerrilla force which had turned elegant homes into sniper nests used the cover of darkness to slip away, making their way up the tree-covered flanks of the Salvador volcano which towers over the city.
Sporadic gunfire echoed through the area before dawn, but the guns fell silent after sunrise. The FMLN’s Radio Venceremos earlier broadcast an order to observe a six-hour truce.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Jeff Brown, commenting on the departure of Americans, said: “A lot of families are going to be separated, but then the people who signed on for El Salvador knew it wouldn’t be like Switzerland.”
U.S. Embassy officials declined to term the departure of American dependents an evacuation. Spokesman Jacobs said Wednesday night: “We are trying to lower our profile. . . . It’s not an evacuation.”
Between 50 and 70 Americans spent the night camped out at the embassy, sleeping on the floor and in office chairs.