El Salvador honors priests slain during civil war

Mon Nov 16, 2009 4:44pm EST

SAN SALVADOR Nov 16 (Reuters) - El Salvador honored on Monday six Jesuit priests killed by the army 20 years ago in one of the most notorious atrocities of the country's long and vicious civil war.

Leftist President Mauricio Funes, the first leader from a party of former Cold War rebels that fought in the conflict, granted the priests El Salvador's highest honor posthumously in a ceremony.

U.S.-backed soldiers shot the priests at their home at a local university on the night of Nov. 16, 1989, to silence their strong criticism of rights abuses committed by the army during the 12-year civil war that ended in 1992.

Five of the priests were Spanish and one was Salvadorean.

The residence's housekeeper and her teenage daughter were also killed in the attack in the capital, San Salvador, which drew worldwide condemnation at the time.

"Twenty years after their cruel murder ... I lift a veil of darkness and lies to let in the light of justice and truth," said Funes, who led the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, to power for the first time this year.

Funes, a former television journalist who reported on the civil war but never fought in it, ended two decades of rule by the conservative and pro-U.S. ARENA party.

ARENA was founded by an army major closely associated with right-wing death squads in the civil war.

The Jesuit murders highlighted the brutality of one of the Cold War's nastiest conflicts, which killed 75,000 people.

Funes has urged unity and reconciliation in El Salvador since taking office in June and has denied accusations he would take the country closer to socialist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He has said he wants strong relations with Washington. (Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Writing by Cyntia Barrera Diaz; editing by Todd Eastham)