The U.S. ambassador and a judge hailed an armed forces decision to turn nine men linked to the massacre of 10 peasants over to civilian authority.
"The high command of the armed forces is admitting that their earlier versions (of the massacre) have not held up under examination and were wrong, scurrilous," U.S. Ambassador William Walker said Sunday.But he added it is too early to tell if the development signals an end to the military's traditional immunity from prosecution in human rights cases.
The military initially blamed the Sept. 21 slayings on the guerrillas but reversed itself after months of investigation by journalists and civilian authorities and pressure from the United States.
In a statement Sunday, the military admitted that soldiers massacred the 10 peasants in the hamlet of San Francisco. It called the slayings "a grave violation of normal operating procedures" and said a major, a second lieutenant, two staff sergeants, a corporal and four privates "will be put at the disposition of civilian judicial authorities."
Judge Alcides Guandique, of the court in San Sebastian that is handling the cases, also said the admission "demonstrates the professionalism of the armed forces, that they are concerned about individual rights and that laws and constitutional principles must be respected and enforced."
"It demonstrates that there is no law above the law of the constitution," he said.
No Salvadoran military officer has been indicted or tried for a human rights abuse despite the torture and murder of thousands of suspected leftists or their sympathizers during the nine-year civil war. The Salvadoran military generally denies any involvement in right-wing death squad activity.
Only eight lower-ranking members of the security forces have been convicted in human rights cases, among them five National Guardsmen convicted in the Dec. 2, 1980 slayings of four American churchwomen.
Outgoing President Jose Napoleon Duarte did not comment on the case in a televised speech Sunday in which he asked guerrillas of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front to lift a traffic ban designed to reinforce a rebel-called election boycott.
The announcement also came after a year of rising violence on both sides in the stalemated civil war that has claimed 70,000 lives, most of them civilian.
The United States, which provides El Salvador with about $1.5 million in aid daily, has been pressing for action in the Sept. 21 massacre, the worst mass slaying of civilians in four years.
During a visit last month, Vice President Dan Quayle told the military high command that the guilty soldiers and officers should be found and punished.
The military initially said the 10 victims were guerrillas who died in "fierce combat" with the 5th Brigade's Jiboa battalion.
But witnesses said soldiers from the battalion blew up or shot seven men and three women in San Francisco after detaining most of the residents and accusing them of being rebel sympathizers.