SAN SALVADOR — Salvadoran authorities are creating an urban paramilitary police unit to fight leftist rebels bent on bringing their guerrilla war to the capital.
The unit--to be trained by American military experts--will be part of the national Treasury Police, an agency linked in the past to right-wing death squads. An armed forces spokesman said the new unit will be organized in mobile, "SWAT-style" counterterrorist teams.
After a three-year lull in urban operations, rebels have increased political assassinations, attacks on security personnel and sabotage in San Salvador and its suburbs.
"Our urban guerrilla commandos have intensified their activity in the heart of the enemy, in the city of San Salvador," said a recent rebel radio broadcast. Thirty-eight people have been killed in the capital by urban guerrillas this year, according to the U.S. Embassy.
Although the rebel activity so far does not constitute a major urban escalation, some analysts here express concern that the scene is being set for that.
"From what we can see now, the picture looks extremely dark," a Salvadoran university official said.
Salvadoran army units are already receiving some urban guerrilla warfare instruction as part of their training by U.S. Army experts.
And a U.S. Embassy spokesman said Wednesday that American training has now been approved for the Treasury Police's planned urban counterterrorist unit. Like Salvadoran government officials, the spokesman declined to say how large the paramilitary unit will be or how much the training will cost.
Congress has barred U.S. foreign aid for police training, but embassy spokesman Don Hamilton said the restriction does not apply because the Treasury Police unit will have "no regular line law-enforcement responsibility."
He said the new unit will report to the army chief of staff.
In Washington, a Democratic congressional aide said the police training program "might well be a violation of the law, but that law's been gotten around so many times that it doesn't mean anything any more."
He said House Democrats plan to question the State Department about the policy.
Before President Jose Napoleon Duarte was elected in May to succeed a provisional president, Treasury Police forces were repeatedly accused by human rights groups of harboring death squad members. Shortly before Duarte's inauguration June 1, the head of the police agency was removed.
And after Duarte took office, he dissolved the Treasury Police's "Section 2," an intelligence unit reputed to have harbored death squad members.
"We've heard no complaints about the Treasury Police for many months now," said embassy spokesman Hamilton.
In 1980 and 1981, when urban terrorism was rampant in San Salvador, hundreds of people were killed each month by rightist death squads and leftist urban guerrillas.
The leftists were vanquished, and urban guerrilla activity all but died out, with only sporadic attacks for the next three years. During that period, right-wing death squad killings also diminished gradually.
Meanwhile, rebels pressed their guerrilla war in the provinces, and the U.S.-backed army concentrated its efforts there.
Now the rural war is at a stalemate. Guerrillas control or operate freely in about one-third of the nation. The army keeps them on the run but poses no immediate threat to their survival.
Commander Joaquin Villalobos, the top guerrilla leader, said on a rebel radio broadcast last weekend that the guerrillas have changed their tactics in recent months.
"We have entered a war of attrition," Villalobos said. "We are in no hurry. We can resist as long as necessary."
He said that taking the war to the cities will help undermine the government's bases of support "and the will of the Americans to continue helping it."
"This could even establish a direct need for Yankee troops," he said. "We are prepared to confront Yankee troops, and we believe that is the kind of war we need to face."
Villalobos heads the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, a grouping of five guerrilla organizations that is named for a Salvadoran Communist executed in 1932.
While the Farabundo Marti Front has intensified its operations in the capital, a newer urban guerrilla group called the Clara Elizabeth Ramirez Front has become increasingly active, too.
Also named for a slain revolutionary hero, the Clara Elizabeth Ramirez Front was unknown until late 1983, when the larger organization disavowed it in a dispute over fine points of Marxist-Leninist strategy.
Since the beginning of 1985, increasing numbers of killings and other operations in San Salvador have been attributed to both organizations.
According to a U.S. Embassy compilation of press reports on political violence in San Salvador between Jan. 1 and March 16, 38 people were killed by leftist urban guerrillas. The leftists were suspected in an additional 23 deaths in the city.
Among the victims were Lt. Col. Ricardo Cienfuegos, director of the Armed Forces Press Committee, who was shot down at a tennis club on March 7. A red flag with the initials of the Clara Elizabeth Ramirez Front was left draped over his body.