El Salvador to help arrest soldiers accused in 1989 murder of priests

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - El Salvador said on Wednesday it would cooperate in the arrest of 17 former soldiers accused of killing six Jesuit priests in one of the most notorious atrocities of the country’s bloody civil war.

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The government made the announcement after a Spanish judge sent a new petition to international police agency Interpol on Monday, ordering the soldiers’ capture for the 1989 murders of the priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. Five of the priests were Spanish and one was Salvadoran.

Salvadoran presidential spokesman Eugenio Chicas said once legal requirements were met, the government of the Central American nation could make the arrests.

“The only path for our security forces to take is to proceed with the arrests, that is, there’s nothing to do but follow the law,” Chicas said in a statement to the media.

Among the officials wanted are Colonel Inocente Montano, a former deputy defense minister, who was arrested in the United States in 2011 for immigration fraud. U.S. authorities said last April they would seek to extradite him to Spain.

Prosecutors say Salvadoran soldiers shot the priests at their home at a university to silence their criticism of rights abuses committed by the U.S.-backed army during the 1980-1992 civil war that claimed an estimated 75,000 lives.

But Chicas said the extradition of the former soldiers to Spain would depend on El Salvador’s Supreme Court.

Spain’s High Court ruled in 2011 that the ex-soldiers should be tried for the murders and ordered them arrested. Interpol also said the men were wanted for extradition.

But El Salvador’s Supreme Court ruled then that Interpol had required the soldiers be located but not arrested or extradited.

“This is a new opportunity for the justice system in this country to put things right,” said Omar Serrano, a vice-rector at the university where the priests were killed.

Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Writing by Anna Yukhananov; Editing by Sandra Maler