SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — Salvadoran police have arrested four former soldiers wanted in Spain for the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests during the Central American country's brutal civil war, officials said Saturday. Five of the priests were Spanish and their killings sparked international outrage.
Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren later called on the military officers still fugitive in the case to turn themselves in to authorities.
"There are people who have hidden; we don't know if they have left the country, but my recommendation is that they turn themselves in to justice," he said. "We need to know the truth about what happened in the past, but we also need justice as well as pardon."
In a Twitter post Saturday, El Salvador's national police said the four ex-soldiers were arrested at the behest of Interpol in an operation that began Friday night. They were identified as Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno and soldiers Antonio Ramiro Avalos Vargas, Angel Perez Vasquez and Tomas Zarpate Castillo.
It's now up to El Salvador's Supreme Court to rule on the extraditions.
Lawyer Lisandro Quintanilla, who represents 13 of the military suspects indicted by Spanish judge Eloy Velasco, called the arrests of the four "arbitrary" and said authorities have 72 hours to present them to a Supreme Court judge.
Salvadoran police said an operation was continuing to locate and arrest the remaining suspects.
The arrests in El Salvador came soon after a judge in North Carolina cleared the way for a former Salvadoran colonel to be extradited to face charges in Spain in the case.
Federal Magistrate Judge Kimberly Swank ordered that U.S. Marshals take custody of Inocente Orlando Montano Morales so he can be turned over to Spain, pending final approval by State Department. The step is largely seen as a formality because lawyers for the diplomatic agency already reviewed the case before turning it over to federal prosecutors.
The unusual extradition fight began in 2011 when the Spanish judge issued an indictment charging Montano with the murder counts. Nineteen others were charged by Spain, with most still living in El Salvador.
Montano, 73, has denied involvement in the killings.
Court documents say that early on the morning of Nov. 16, 1989, members of the Salvadoran military killed the six priests, their housekeeper and her daughter at a university in the country's capital. The priests had been calling for discussions to end the fighting, with one of them serving as an intermediary between the government and a leftist group.
The killings helped erode U.S. support for El Salvador's right-wing Salvadoran government.
An amnesty that followed the 1992 peace agreement ending El Salvador's conflict hindered prosecutions. While two officers served short sentences in El Salvador, Montano and other high-level officials were never charged by authorities there in the priests' killings.
"This is an important step in terms of justice, but we still are not talking about the intellectual authors" of the killings, said Andreu Oliva, rector of the Central American University "Jose Simeon Canas." ''It is a failure for Salvadoran justice and society that justice is only being sought in Spain."