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9 Salvadoran suspects fight extradition to Spain

Nine former Salvadoran soldiers and military officials were in custody Monday at an army base while fighting extradition to Spain in the killings of six Jesuit priests and two others during El Salvador's civil war.

The Salvadoran government said in a statement that the men, among 20 ex-soldiers indicted by a Spanish judge in May, were in the custody of a civilian court that handles extradition cases.

The suspects turned themselves in at the military installation Sunday afternoon, as Salvadoran police were preparing to arrest them on an extradition order from Interpol. A 10th suspect, former army chief of staff Rene Emilio Ponce, died in May, before the indictments were issued.

The Salvadoran Defense Ministry, now in the hands of a leftist government, has said it would not interfere in civilian proceedings against the men, who have asked the country's Supreme Court to block the extradition. It would be the first time Salvadoran officers were extradited to face crimes stemming from the conflict.

The men argue that the case involving the 1989 deaths of the Jesuit priests was closed in 1991 after a court handed down convictions against at least two officers. The convictions were set aside under an amnesty that came when the civil war ended in 1992, setting the stage for a legal battle over whether the suspects have immunity from prosecution on fresh charges of crimes against humanity.

The case has been closely watched here since Judge Eloy Velasco of Spain, acting under a principle known as universal jurisdiction, charged the 20 former military men.

Five of the six slain priests were Spaniards.

The killings of the priests — slain along with their housekeeper and her daughter — have long been a searing example of the violent excesses of the U.S.-backed government in its fight against leftist rebels.

The slayings occurred Nov. 16, 1989 at the Jesuit-run University of Central America in San Salvador. Some military officials believed the university was a hotbed of support for the rebels.

Among those who turned themselves in Sunday are Rafael Humberto Larios, the former defense minister; Juan Orlando Zepeda, who was vice defense minister; former air force chief Gen. Rafael Bustillo; and Col. Francisco Helena Fuentes, a former commander of the 1st Infantry Brigade.

One of the 20 named in the Spanish indictment, Inocente Orlando Montano, a former vice minister of public safety, has been living in Everett, Mass., according to a source familiar with the case.

A second accused officer, Hector Ulises Cuenca Ocampo, once head of military intelligence, was living in San Mateo, Calif., but some believe he was placed under witness protection by the U.S. government and moved elsewhere.

Renderos is a special correspondent.

Times staff writer Ken Ellingwood in Mexico City contributed to this report.


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